Brazil's Eliane Elias shows she can find the bossa nova in anything
Eliane Elias’s gorgeous gowns, wavy blond hair, and intelligent blend of postbop New York jazz and rhythms from her homeland have made the pianist and singer an iconic figure around the world. Although she’s now based in New York, the São Paulo–born artist remains the embodiment of Brazilian elegance and musical imagination. At the time of her interview with the Straight, she’s within a few hours of flying to Europe with her bass-playing husband, Marc Johnson, yet sounds completely relaxed and engaged.
“As a young woman, my preparation was to be a pianist, and when I first started to sing, it was like, ‘My piano is jealous,’ ” Elias says with a laugh, reached at her home in Manhattan, where she’s lived since 1981. “Because I love playing, and I’ve always been a trio player. But the voice is such a beautiful instrument, and quickly it felt so integrated. I’m very comfortable now doing both at the same time. It feels very much the whole me.”
Elias has good reason to feel at ease with herself as an artist. Last year, she released the brilliant self-produced album Light My Fire to a chorus of critical acclaim. It finds the singer, a master of the sultry bossa nova, exploring Afro-Brazilian traditions such as afoxé, maracatu, and baião. Elias refreshes a handful of U.S. jazz and rock classics (including the Doors’ “Light My Fire”), comes up with several originals, and on three lively cuts duets with legendary Bahian singer Gilberto Gil.
“I always like to have some well-known pieces to show bossa nova can be done with music that isn’t Brazilian,” she says. “So we did the Doors song very slow, sexy, and cool. Also Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’, which is in 5/4 time, played with a bossa feel. I wrote a new part, but I couldn’t relate to the original lyrics so I sang scat instead. We were delighted when Dave Brubeck commented it was his favourite version.”
Each of the 12 tracks was recorded on the first take, giving the album a seductive vitality and a strongly organic quality. “You know how a studio environment can be,” Elias says. “You’re wearing headphones, maybe you don’t hear so well, the red light’s on, someone got a little nervous. It can be a difficult experience. But every note we played or sang felt right, and we would finish and say ‘Yes!’ Making Light My Fire really was as good as it gets.”
The Eliane Elias Brasileira Quartet plays two shows at Performance Works on Sunday (June 24) as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.