A Conversation With Eliane Elias
Mike Ragogna: Eliane! Let's talk about your new album, I Thought About You and all things Eliane Elias. First, can you tell us about yourself and how you got into music?
Eliane Elias: Sure. I was born in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and I come from a very musical family. My mother played the piano and she played a lot of jazz at home. I fell in love with jazz by the time I was ten years old and I was transcribing the parts of great players and playing along with them. Then I attended Brazil's best school of music starting at age 13 and graduated by the time I was 15. I started teaching at that school that year, and then two years after then, when I was 17, I started working with Vinicius De Moraes, the lyricist and co-writer with Antonio Carlo Jobim, and with Toquinho, another co-writer with Vinicius, besides working on different venues with my instrumental trio. That was something very special because I got to experience, live and learn the Bossa Nova from its creators. In my mind, I wanted to move to New York, and that's what I did in '81. I have recorded 23 albums to date, and the albums feature different sides of my music. Some albums are very Brazilian, and others are more straight ahead jazz. I also have albums that feature original music I have written in different formats, from duets with Herbie Hancock to Big Band. I've been singing more and more, especially since the mid-'90s. My music offers what I feel are all very true sides of me.
MR: Let's talk about one of those sides, your writing. In fact, Bob Brookmeyer did a whole album of your material.
EE: That's correct. That was such an honor. Bob Brookmeyer wrote arrangements of my compositions and we toured with a 22-piece big band, with him conducting and myself on piano. That was a Grammy-nominated album for Best Jazz Ensemble. It was really fantastic to have all of his beautiful work documented.
MR: Beyond the Grammy nom, you've received all sorts of accolades over the years such as your being named Best New Talent by Jazz Is magazine a while back. Aside from your critical achievements you also have the song, "Amanda," which is a bit of a classic. Of course, you were with Randy Brecker for some time.
EE: Yes. "Amanda" is my daughter with Randy Brecker -- Amanda Brecker. She's a wonderful young artist who just released a new album this year and is touring as we speak. She's a singer-songwriter and she is following her own muse with music, and it's wonderful.
MR: It must have been an incredibly musical household with all of you there.
EE: It was incredible. First of all, even before marrying Randy, I was working with Steps Ahead, which was a band with Michael Brecker, Randy's brother who passed away a few years ago. He made history with a tenor saxophone, so playing with him was fantastic already. Randy, an incredible musician who, by the way, has been featured on several of my albums including I Thought About You -- he is playing on the record -- was really great because Randy is also a composer, so we were writing music and playing music in the house. We listened to a variety of things in the house, including Chet. It was a total musical environment.
MR: I imagine that is still going on in your home as you have Marc Johnson in your life.
EE: We've been together for almost 23 years now. We work together, we travel together, we co-produce the recordings... He's an incredible bassist. You know that he was the last bassist with the Bill Evan's Trio, right?
MR: Yes ma'am!
EE: So he brings so much great music, and we have a great affinity for working together and playing together. It's a whole big family, you know?
MR: Beautiful. And to me, Brazilian music is some of the most romantic, beautiful music on the planet.
EE: Isn't it? It is beautiful, it's true. On this tribute to Chet Baker -- I Thought About You -- I did three of the songs bringing more of that Brazilian spirit. I don't know if you know this, but Chet Baker and the cool school influenced the Bossa Nova. Chet Baker had a special way of phrasing, singing over the bar line and in an unaffected way, and he was very melodic. All of that was an influence on many Brazilian artists, especially the legends of the Bossa Nova, such as Joao Gilberto, and other Bossa Nova legends. So three of the songs I did in the Brazilian spirit. It was nice to do that and reunite some of the music with a Brazilian groove.
MR: I think most people attribute his music more to the cool jazz, like you said, but when you think about how intimately and rhythm-pushing he recorded his vocals, yeah, it has a lot in common with Bossa Nova and Latin jazz.
EE: Exactly. I remember Jobim telling me that too, how he had listened to Chet Baker.
MR: Eliane, how did you pick the tracks on this project?
EE: The music has to speak with me on several levels. I'm a romantic by nature, so this record has songs that bring aspects of love. They could be happy, they could be longing -- could be missing someone -- romantic love and also loss. Also, the lyrics and what I'm talking about have importance. I usually like to relate to the story and to be able to sing it and tell it to you. I have to feel it to be able to sing it to you. The songs also have to be good vehicles for playing because I'm playing and singing, so I'm looking for something that is interesting harmonically and that has lyricism. And, of course, the rhythmic element has to be there, it has to feel good.
MR: I'm a big Chet Baker fan, so when I look at these songs, I see musical snapshots of periods in my life. Is that what happened with you as well in your selection process?
EE: Oh, sure. Certainly. All of the songs meant something to me, just as you said, at different times of my life. For example, there is a song called "Girl Talk," and it is a song that I always liked to play. In fact, it was the very first transcription that I had made of pianist Oscar Peterson -- his interpretation of "Girl Talk." I didn't know the lyrics, but I loved the tune, and the lyrics I came to learn later, so I included that. "I Thought About You" is a song that I remember from my childhood. "This Can't Be Love" is a standard that I can recall listening to Red Garland do with Paul Chambers playing an arco solo. All of those songs, I connect with them in different ways.
MR: All of these are iconic songs for Chet Baker, but one stands out in particular, maybe because of the documentary, but it's "Let's Get Lost."
EE: What a great tune. This one received a Brazilian treatment, and I was really happy with the way it came out.
MR: Can I ask you what made you turn the corner as far as singing, as opposed to being just an instrumentalist?
EE: When I moved to New York, all I wanted to do was to play and establish myself as a jazz player, and that's what I did. The very first recording I made was that recording with Randy Brecker, "Amanda," right before my daughter was born. On that recording, I was singing and playing on the whole record. Randy liked me to sing and I did it, but ultimately, at that stage of my life, I just wanted to play. I sang on several of my projects, but only one or two songs here and there, and when I was performing live, I would also sing two or three tunes. It became apparent that everyone really enjoyed the moments when I sang. They were asking, "Can we hear more?" So back in the late '90s, the record company I was signed to asked me if I would do a recording that would feature my voice more than my piano. I said, "Okay, well I'll do one," and the recording did really well. People and critics loved it. Then I had to go out and promote this recording, so I was singing and playing, and from that, it continued on and on. [laughs] It's become an integral part of what I do.
MR: You got the bug.
EE: Yes, and it feels great to do both.
MR: Speaking of documentaries, you were featured in Calle 54.
EE: It was a great documentary on Latin jazz artists, and I had the pleasure of representing Brazil, being the only Brazilian and the only female artist in the documentary. It was something really special for me to be a part of.
MR: What are your thoughts on jazz these days?
EE: That's a long, long, long subject because I think there is a tremendous amount of people doing the music, and perhaps not all that is presented is quite significant these days, musically. People are bombarded by a lot of things and distracted by a lot of things, but some of the great players remain the great players. It's a difficult question to answer because things have changed. I am a jazz musician, and I have always made music that came from my heart. I have always made music that I wanted to give to the people, that I hoped would be pleasant for people to listen to without sacrificing the integrity of my artistic vision. Unfortunately, there is this whole mentality of performing that seems like "I'm performing in my living room, I won't lift my head, I'll solo 10 choruses on each tune, I'm going to do my thing." I think when that started happening more and more, jazz players started losing some of their audience. Look at some of the great entertainers. Go back to Louis Armstrong. You have to do the music for yourself of course, but also for the people that are listening.
MR: Personally, I feel like it's that entertainment aspect that also fuels the creativity and gets you going to that next level.
EE: Of course. I consider myself very blessed. I work out on the road one hundred eighty days a year, I've played all over the world and it's so beautiful to see how people love the music. They react to it. It doesn't matter if I'm doing something vocal, instrumental, Brazilian-oriented or jazz-oriented, I feel a great connection with the audience and the fans that I have gained over the course of my career. I know that the world economy is going through such trouble, and there are fewer venues, it's harder to connect dates for artists, so I know a lot of musicians that are resorting to teaching because it is hard to support themselves or their families by going on the road. A lot of the young people are very busy with the computer and the internet and Facebook and this and that, and they don't seem to devote as much time for practicing and creating. There are so many options and distractions and I sometimes wonder what's going to happen in the future in terms of quality instrumentalists.
MR: Ooh, that segues nicely into my traditional question that I ask all my guests. What advice do you have for new artists?
EE: The first is, don't run to the computer first thing in the morning. [laughs] I personally have devoted a lot of time to music and I still do. I have a house in the woods where it's quiet, and I'm better able to create from being in quiet and nature. We need to have those moments. We are bombarded by so many things -- you have a new mail, you have to answer this, you have to answer that. It's so easy to be distracted that I would say to make sure to create some time and try to focus on what you like to do. Really devote yourself to the music and follow your dreams, really go do it.
MR: Nicely said. What was the best advice that anybody ever gave you?
EE: Oh, I don't know. I don't think I learned so much from advice. I think we all learn from our own experience. I can't tell you what the advice was, but I can tell you that I did it the way I did and it worked for me. I love the music, absolutely love music, and I've devoted my life to it. I remember my piano teacher telling me when I was quite young that with an instrument, when you put your time into it, you will certainly see progress, get something back for the time invested into it. And how this can be different than a relationship with another person is that sometimes, though you may be devoting yourself to someone, suddenly, BOOM, you get hit on the head and that relationship is over. But your relationship with your instrument doesn't work like that. The relationship with music is a wonderful relationship to have. It can be challenging at times, especially when you are developing technique that you have not yet mastered, but also very rewarding when you can immerse yourself in music and sound and create countless musical stories.
MR: This has been really special. Eliane, thank you for your time and insights.
EE: Thank you. I hope you all enjoy the music, and you all find something that speaks to you.
1. I Thought About You
2. There Will Never Be Another You
3. This Can't Be Love
4. Embraceable You
5. That Old Feeling
6. Everything Depends On You
7. I've Never Been In Love Before
8. Let's Get Lost
9. You Don't Know What Love Is
10. Blue Room
11. Just Friends
12. Girl Talk
13. Just In Time
14. I Get Along Without You Very Well
Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney
Photo credit: Jennifer Rowsom
THE WILDERNESS OF MANITOBA'S GOT "HEAD AND HEART"
Into "The Wilderness" they bravely wandered...
"The Wilderness of Manitoba's new EP The Leslieville Sessions is out now. For this album, the band wanted to go with a more straightforward approach compared to their more acoustic leaning, layered albums over the years. On a particularly long drive on their recent western Canadian tour, talk turned to how bands used to record live-off-the floor with no overdubs. 'We spent one day, from noon to 1 a.m., recording these songs,' says Amanda Balsys. 'We really wanted to put out something that reflected the feel of the live band with its new members.' Along with bassist Wes McClintock, they went into Revolution studios in the Leslieville area of Toronto and recorded five songs including three songs written by Will Whitwham, Yellow Yard by Amanda Balsys and a John Martyn song called, 'Head and Heart.'"
Here's a live version of the song "Head and Heart" from the album: