By Dan Ouellette, ZEAL Senior Editor, October 27, 2017
When the Brazil-born, New York-based pianist and vocalist Eliane Elias settles in to Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall on November 3 and 4, she will be reflecting on the spectrum of her career in a cross-cultural doubleheader of her early influences. In the first part of the program, she’ll be playing tribute to pianist Bill Evans, in an instrumental trio setting with the jazz icon’s final rhythm team of drummer Joe LaBarbera and bassist (and her husband) Marc Johnson. Then after the intermission, Elias will return for what she’s calling ”The Brazilian Journey.” In the company of Johnson, and fellow Brazilians guitarist Rubens de La Corte and drummer Rafael Barata, she’ll be swinging into a set of fired-up then cooled-down tunes from the samba tradition.
In conversation, Elias is effervescent. She’s excited to be displaying two important musical landscapes in her music on the same evening. Just wait until she takes the stage. She steals the show with her spirited personality and buoyant pianism. And when she rounds the bend into Part 2, she reveals her vocal talent with an ebullience and romance that matches her keyboard work. While she arrived on the New York scene primarily as a pianist, she began to explore her love of singing. Now, many years later, she has said, “I can’t imagine not doing both.”
A couple of weeks before her Rose Hall shows, Elias says that she’s not planning to sing during the Evans segment—but that could change, given that on her superb 2008 Blue Note album, Something for You: Eliane Elias Sings and Plays Bill Evans, she gives voice to six of the tunes, including “Waltz for Debby,” the Evans classic that Canadian journalist and lyricist Gene Lees gave lyrics to. “But I’m not sure I will sing,” she says. “I will save that for the Brazilian set. But if I do, I will sing ‘Waltz for Debby,’ maybe ‘Embraceable You,’ but I’m not sure.”
Elias has history with the impressionistic melodicist. “When I was growing up, Bill Evans was one of my biggest influences on the piano,” she says rhapsodically. “I used to transcribe his music so I could play it. There was the beauty and sonority of his music, and he had a beautiful taste of harmony. I had always dreamed of being conversational in my music, so this interplay that he gave has always stayed with me.”
Of Evans’ immense catalog of inventive tunes, does Elias have special songs that she particularly enjoys playing? She singles out one, “Five,” a composition that Evans wrote and recorded on his debut album New Jazz Conceptions for Orrin Keepnews’ important indie label Riverside Records (also home to Thelonious Monk at the time). “I love the way Bill places time on this tune,” Elias says. “He stays in four and solos over the rhythm changes.” She also favors “You and the Night and the Music,” a piece Evans recorded on his 1962 album Interplay (also on Riverside). ”I like to play this solo,” she says.
No doubt Elias will also perform two of the uncompleted Evans songs that Johnson discovered while listening to a cassette the leader gave to him shortly before he passed away. The resurrected tunes: “Evanesque” and “Here Is Something for You.”
After the romanticism and melodic beauty of the first part of the show, the stage opens into a party of rhythm-fueled Brazilian music, with a special emphasis on the uptempo and percussion-filled sambas. While Elias will play and sing bossa nova tunes (taken at a medium-to-slow tempo), she likes to accelerate the speed. “In terms of playing the piano, most people playing sambas rely on the drummer,” she says. “But I can carry the rhythm on the piano. I do everything rhythmically, both my left and right hands. It’s a unique way of playing, and I’m proud of that. The rhythms are contagious and there’s lots of room for improvisation.”
Given Elias’ heritage, it’s not surprising that she keeps returning to the deep well of Brazilian music. For starters, of her 24 albums as a leader, Elias has recorded Bossa Nova Stories (2009) and Made in Brazil (2015), her first recording made in her homeland. It won the 2016 Grammy for Best Latin Album. Her latest album, 2017’s Dance of Time, also recorded in Brazil, celebrates the sprit of samba, which last year marked its 100th anniversary as a recorded song form. Elias has said, “Samba is the most authentic and contagious dance rhythm of Brazil, and there is no better place in the world to capture this music. I just had to be in Brazil to make Dance of Time.”
From the new album, count on Elias playing such tunes as “O Pato,” “Copacabana” and the samba tribute cooker, “Sambou Sambou.”
If her dual Rose Hall performances may seem overwhelming to Elias, consider that she launched the SFJAZZ 2014 season with four nights of different music that one scribe described as being played by “an artist who encompasses multitudes.” She played a bossa nova show and the Evans repertoire, as well as a tribute night to Chet Baker (based on her album I Thought About You: A Tribute to Chet Baker), and another homage to the Brazilian founder of the culture’s songbook, Dorival Caymmi.
After the multifaceted Elias talks about the SFJAZZ extravaganza, she comes up with yet another “part” that she could play. “I could put on a special show on my career, playing solos and duets and my original music,” she says. “I could bring everything together at once. That would be a fun time.”
Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor at ZEALnyc, writes frequently for noted Jazz publications, including DownBeat and Rolling Stone, and is the author of Ron Carter: Finding the Right Notes and Bruce Lundvall: Playing by Ear.
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