Over a career that has spanned almost three decades as a recording artist, Brazilian-born Eliane Elias has done it all. After a period backing Vinicius de Morais and Toquinho in her late teens she relocated to the United States in the early 80s and established herself as a jazz pianist. She has performed and recorded alongside legends like Herbie Hancock bassist Eddie Gomez and saxophonist Joe Henderson, to name a few.
On her latest release Light My Fire (Concord), Elias follows up on 2009’s Bossa Nova Stories (Blue Note), a disc that paid tribute to the 50 years of the music movement that changed the face of jazz and pop around the world. On the new disc, she revisits classics like Paul Desmond’s “Take 5,” Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” and Dorival Caymmi’s “Rosa Morena,” a tune that was previously recorded by the likes of Rosa Passos and João Gilberto.
The CD also features three duets with Gilberto Gil and a very personal – and sexy – rendition of the Doors’ “Light My Fire.” Backing her are great players in their own right such as Romero Lubambo (guitar), Oscar Castro-Neves (guitar) husband Marc Johnson (bass) and daughter Amanda Brecker.
We caught up with Elias over a phone interview from her Long Island home, when she talked about the new disc, her early days and also the prospect of playing in Brazil – something she hasn’t done in a long time but would definitely like to.
Elias celebrated the release of Light My Fire with a residence at New York’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola (Broadway at 60th Street, 4th Floor – www.jalc.org ) from May 31st to June 2.
On Light My Fire, you chose a selection of tunes that is quite diverse. How was the process?
When I finish making a record, I’m already thinking ahead, you know, things I will do next. So the process happens over time, it doesn’t happen a few months before. For this recording I knew I wanted to give continuity to the work that I’ve been doing singing as well as playing, of course, so I wanted to bring a little more of Brazil.
In my most recent recordings, I had a tribute to bossa nova called Bossa Nova Stories (Blue Note). I also had a tribute to (pianist) Bill Evans – that was a jazz recording, but the last few records I did were more towards bossa nova and I thought it would be interesting to bring other elements of Brazilian music into this recording, and also bring some originals, because in the past ones I didn’t do that. So I wrote some songs – one of them is a tune that I wrote many years ago with Gonzaguinha (1945-1991) in 1988. We were planning to do collaboration. I was recording with Blue Note when he passed away.
I remember that well.
Oh, it was a shock. The tune, “Samba Maracatu” didn’t have lyrics. I completed and wrote the lyrics as a tribute to Gonzaguinha. Then I wrote “Made in Moonlight” and “What About The Heart.” “Stay Cool” I wrote lyrics to a Kenny Dorham song called “Una Mas.”
So when looking for other elements to include on the disc – “Stay Cool” has a lot of Latin elements to it – “Samba Maracatu” has different rhythms, has a little bit of ‘calango,’ even a little bit of Minas Gerais, actually. There are many Afro-Brazilian elements, especially after we brought Gilberto Gil into the project.
But before bringing him in, I had chosen some American tunes – “Take 5” is an iconic jazz tune that everyone know, bringing that Brazilian flavor, and doing that intimate, small group with percussion, guitar, bass and piano but doing in such a way that there is a lot of space – sort of a cool, exciting flavor to it. I wanted to have this cool, sexy flavor to it, but also having that groove. So I chose “Light My Fire” in a very slow, X-rated version – I’m kidding (laughs).
I heard it already.
But you are over 18, right – um pouquinho (a little?)
Quite over that, really.
(Laughs) Well, those under 16 cannot listen to “Light My Fire.” That song and “My Cherie Amour” are songs that I heard growing up in Brazil, they were international hits, and they were tunes that I always envisioned doing, so this record was the right one.
We used different textures in it – it’s not like ‘it’s a quartet record but there is no quartet.’ There are songs that begin with percussion, then there is the voice, guitar and bass come in, all together trying to create a certain dynamic with the group that we have.
And how did Gilberto Gil come in the picture?
I’ve known Gil for a long time. Years and years ago I did some music direction for a concert he did in New York at Avery Fisher Hall, and we both have taken parts in different concerts, but this is the first time we recorded together in my album.
When I was working on “Samba Maracatu,” I thought it would be nice to have a male voice, somebody who could do this as a duet, so I immediately thought about Gilberto Gil, because Gonzaguinha’s father (Luis Gonzaga) was one of the biggest influences on Gil’s music.
So I called Gil and he was in a rehearsal studio, and he picked up the phone and we started to talk. He agreed to do it, and we decided to do the recording. In my process of recording, I like to be in the studio together – I don’t like the idea of sending the music – a lot of people do that, you send the music, somebody does an overdub somewhere, sends it back to you.
I wanted to record together, but I thought it wouldn’t happen, since Gil is in Brazil, then I asked him, ‘How are we going to do this?’ and he said, ‘Well, I have a show in New York on October 16, and I will be in town until the 20th. The days I had scheduled to do the recording in the studio were October 17-20 – those were the days I had booked two or three months in advance.
So it was a bit serendipitous.
We laughed about it, so I asked him to come by on the last day so he could do his parts. Originally it was only going to be “Samba Maracatu,” but then we got excited and I thought we could do some ‘afoxé’ and other elements, so we did “Toda Menina Baiana” and “Aquele Abraço” as duets, so he ended up being on three tracks, which brought even more interesting flavors to the CD.
You took quite a while to begin exploring your Brazilian side – your previous records were much more jazz-oriented.
Well, when I started out I wanted to play jazz. I grew up with the great privilege of having grown up with bossa nova. I worked with Vinicius de Morais for three years. I was really young during the bossa years, but I was able to work with its creators, so Brazilian music was part of my DNA.
But when I came to the US, I really wanted to be a jazz pianist. So I came well-prepared and was well accepted in the jazz scene here, I was hired by Blue Note and started making my records as a pianist. I used my voice a little to give it a certain color to the music – I didn’t want to be a singer.
If you look at by recordings, for example – my very first recording was a disc called Amanda (1984), that one already had some Brazilian material – for example there was a song called “Samba de Bamba,” there was one called “Guarujá” and a bossa named “Amanda Amada.”
When I first started making records for Blue Note, I established myself as a jazz pianist first. After that record, I started to incorporate more Brazilian sounds. Like in So Far So Close (1989), which came out before Plays Jobim (1991).
When I did Plays Jobim, I remember that I went to his apartment in Manhattan and showed him the material I was doing and he said, ‘Wow, did I write that?’ I would do it in my way, preserving his original work but giving it my own form of arranging and playing.
I remember buying that record years ago and marveling at how the arrangements were made.
Exactly. I didn’t just want to make a tribute to him, but I wanted to give it a more contemporary form. But really, in all my recordings, I always tried to bring elements of Brazil. But that really began to grow when I began to sing. And even that was done in stages.
When I’d do my shows, I would sing maybe one or two songs, and everyone wanted me to do more. So when I left Blue Note and went to BMG, they asked me to do one record. “Put the piano just a little aside – you can play, but don’t play the virtuoso stuff – let’s make one special record in which Eliane is the singer.”
So I thought, “If I’m going to do this, I think I’d like to sing things like João Gilberto did, and I want to have an orchestra. So we did Dreamer (2004) though I had already recorded Sings Jobim (1998). It was a tribute, but the voice was really low in the mix. I didn’t want it to stand out. On Dreamer, I didn’t have that choice, it was a vocalist record, and it was an international smash, and so it really started…
As a singer.
Singer and player! And the reaction I got! “Personal voice, what a voice…” So I continued doing it and today I could not imagine not doing it. I just did a record for ECM with (husband) Marc Johnson, which is all instrumental – it was wonderful, but I missed singing. I love doing both – it became something so strong, that is really me, you know?
The piano is like an extension of my body, and the voice completes Eliane – it’s the whole me. Singing opened a whole world for me – I can sing these songs in my own way. I can do Brazilian songs, and also sing American tunes – it opened a whole array of possibilities, which led to my doing even more Brazilian stuff. And people love it – wherever I go, you can feel the reaction of the audience – I get standing ovations even in the middle of the concerts.
How is your relationship with Brazilian audiences today?
In the first years I started recording, there was a lot of curiosity – there were many articles in newspapers and magazines. However, the last time I played in Brazil was in 2005, do you believe it?
If you see my schedule, you will see that I am the kind of musician who plays around the globe. But I think Brazil is the place where I play the least.
That is so strange, because so many jazz artists perform regularly there.
I think that Brazil needs to want to have their native musicians perform there. I cannot go down there and knock on someone’s door and tell them I want to play. The way it works, artists have agencies, management and so on, and if there is a festival and they invite us to play, we’ll go.
But what I feel is that the artist agencies here don’t even know who to contact in Brazil – and I don’t either. What happens is that our schedule is so tight that we don’t have the time to find out who we could talk to in order to play there. Recently, I told Gilberto Gil, “I want this record to come out in Brazil and I want to play it in Brazil,” so I need to get promoters in order to coordinate things fast, because then my agenda will fill and then…
You have done a lot of great work as a side woman as well. I remember a great disc you did with Joe Henderson, Double Rainbow…
I remember that. The whole project was to have featured Jobim himself on the Brazilian half (note: the other half looked at the maestro’s work through an American point of view), but he got sick, and the project was almost canceled – and then he recommended me, which was like a blessing from him.
I also played with the Mingus Dynasty Band – I was the only blonde Brazilian girl in the band, which was really, really straight-ahead, very cool I also worked with Toots Thielemans. I also did a duet record with Herbie (Hancock), several other things.
By the way, how did your daughter (singer Amanda Brecker) get in your record?
Well, she came in the studio and I basically asked her to sing. Amanda has just released her third record, which is coming out worldwide. Amanda is a singer-songwriter, and she writes interesting material, much on the folk side, and she loves the music of Brazil, the music of Bahia – like I do. I was doing “Toda Menina Baiana,” and when we get to the chorus (sings ‘Que Deus Deu…) I wanted some extra voices so I said, ‘Amanda, sing it for me.’
Do you collaborate often?
No, we don’t live together… Amanda is 27 now… On her first record I played one solo, and so did her dad (trumpeter Randy Brecker), but she has her own career, and has her own style. She just did a tribute to James Taylor and Carole King under the production of Jesse Harris (writer of “Don’t Know Why”), our styles are completely different – she has her own path, it is better this way.
For more on Eliane Elias visit www.elianeelias.com
Ernest Barteldes is a freelance writer based on Staten Island, New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article appeared in The Brasilians.