Corrections or additions?
This article by Richard J. Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on October 6, 1999. All rights reserved.
Girl from Ipanema, Grown-Up from Sao Paolo
Brazilian jazz pianist and vocalist Eliane Elias (pronounced
Ilee-anee El-ee-us) will be the first to tell you that her biggest
influence — more powerful than Art Tatum, Nat King Cole, Red Garland,
Erroll Garner, or any of the other piano jazz giants whose music she
studied in her youth — was her mother, Lucy.
Growing up in Sao Paolo, Brazil, South America’s largest city, where
she was born in 1960, Elias’ mom was a good housewife and a doting
"My father is an industrialist," Elias explains from her New
York flat in her charming Brazilian accent. What is an industrialist,
"An industrialist is somebody who is head of industry business,
how do you say?" she says. Her father worked as president of a
metallurgical company and had the opportunity to fly to America often
while Elias was growing up. After each trip, he would come back loaded
with American jazz records, mostly by piano players.
"My mom didn’t really ever have a career, but she played wonderful
piano," adds Elias, who will perform at the Peddie School in Hightstown
this Friday, October 8. Her mother played a lot of piano around the
house, and that’s how Elias got started, as a toddler. Elias was good
enough so that by the time she was 12, she was transcribing Art Tatum
and Bud Powell solos from recordings her father had brought home from
Elias, 39, says she stays in touch with her mother, back home in Sao
Paolo, constantly. Lucy flies up to New York, where Elias has been
based since 1981, when she’s recording another one of her albums for
Blue Note Records, a division of Capitol/EMI that she’s been signed
with for most of her recording career.
"As a child, once I started playing and the more I started developing,
she would sit by me when I practice and she would be leaving the chair
open for me. She would get up and push me toward the chair," she
"The more time went by, the less she would sit there and the more
I’d have to be playing," Elias recalls, laughing.
"She is so great, she is such a presence in my life, like, when
I’m recording, she’s here and she’s here when I’m doing important
stuff. She’s just amazing," Elias explains.
It’s not surprising therefore, that Elias, now a single
mom after being divorced from musician Randy Brecker (of the Brecker
Brothers), is now a doting mother herself. Her daughter, Amanda, 15,
also plays piano and is quite good, Elias reports.
Asked about the economic realities of the jazz business in the 1990s,
Elias agrees things are tough out there for most jazz musicians. "When
I see people getting started now, they’re studying, they want to have
career and everything . . . they don’t know that it’s very difficult,"
"Like my own daughter, who is studying piano and going to LaGuardia
School of Music and has all good intentions. But she has had great
example of a good successful life, based on myself, based on her father
[Randy Brecker], based on her uncle [Michael Brecker], I mean, we
all did very well," she says. So Elias and Brecker are the exception
to the rule for jazz musicians, who typically sell 10,000 to perhaps
30,000 records, not a great many by most rock ‘n’ roll standards.
But with the rising interest in world music and Brazilian music in
general through the 1980s and 1990s, Elias has fared well, or so she
says. Her recent albums for Blue Note Records, "Eliane Elias Plays
Jobim" and "Eliane Elias Sings Jobim" have sold better-than-average
for jazz releases, she says. Some critics have said her 1993 release
"Paulistana," an exquisitely recorded affair that showcases
her brilliance as a composer and her deft, feathery touch on the ivories,
is "the best" album of Brazilian jazz ever recorded.
"I prefer not to tell you numbers," she says, when pressed
about album sales, but when offered figures like 20,000 units or 25,000
units sold, she says, "should be more, but I don’t usually advertise
or talk about numbers. I don’t want to put that in the paper,"
she says, laughing.
"There’s a lot of very good jazz musicians out there that are
selling like, 5,000 CDs," she says.
"I mean, I think my range is wider, because there’s a quality
to the music that appeals to people who aren’t jazz fans. My music
is Brazilian, so there’s some wider appeal to the music," she
argues. Her recent album, "Eliane Elias Sings Jobim," the
songs of Brazil’s most famous composer, Antonio Carlos Jobim, was
on the Billboard magazine Jazz charts for three or four months, she
Elias says she realizes now she grew up in very fortunate circumstances
there. "Sao Paolo, first of all, is wonderful, huge metropolis
and lots of highly educated people and culture is there," she
"In the time I was growing up, when I was five and six years old,
I remember watching the TV, what they called `Ofino de Bossa’ and
the bossa nova movement was really exploding in Brazil," she recalls.
"And because of my father and his traveling, I had access to great
jazz recordings, because Brazil at that time never allowed importation.
You couldn’t get these records in stores, so my mother used to play
these jazz records day and night, so I heard more jazz than the average
American child would hear," she says, "unless their parents
listened to WBGO [the jazz-formatted public radio station in Newark]
like 24 hours a day," she says, laughing.
"Plus, coming from San Paolo, how can I put this: people work
really hard, they’re ambitious. So I come from that, and I worked
very hard at a young age with the love that I had for the music. I
didn’t have any other interests," she says, "I knew what I
wanted to do, and I was doing great."
In other words, Elias had direction as a kid, and now her own daughter
has direction and discipline. Amanda has been studying piano for eight
years, she says.
"She was playing when she was three and four years old, she had
so much music in her life," Elias says.
Elias considers herself very fortunate, not only in terms of her album
sales, but in terms of having the chance to get to know, and work
with, her other major influence — besides her mother — Jobim.
The late Jobim’s best-known compositions are "Desafinado (Slightly
Out of Tune)," and he and saxophonist Stan Getz and the then-unknown
vocalist Astrud Gilberto had a huge crossover hit in the mid-1960s
with "Girl From Ipanema." In Brazil, Jobim’s songs are the
equivalent of the good standards by Gershwin and Cole Porter here.
Elias first got to know Jobim in the late 1970s, she says.
"I was working with Vinicius De Moraes, who was the lyricist for
most of Jobim’s tunes, and bossa nova was really still happening,"
she recalls. She credits the composer with being a "great bridge"
who took Brazilian music to an international level.
"And then Stan Getz took it and made it popular in this country.
He opened doors for us," she explains.
"I first met Jobim in ’78, when I was working with Venicius in
Rio, and we were doing a show that would stay for two months at a
theater, like here, if you stayed for two months at Town Hall,"
After Elias relocated to New York, she got together
with the composer a number of times. "When I was recording `Plays
Jobim,’ in 1989, I got together with him quite a bit. I would show
him what I was doing, and he was so great and so enchanted by it.
He would open his big eyes and say, ‘Did I write that?!’ " she
"There I was, showing the great composer what I was doing with
his music. I took a lot of freedom, but people who know my playing
said, `it’s Jobim, but there’s so much of Eliane there.’ There was
so much of my own color, it was almost like composing with him. But
he was so accepting of it, I cannot tell you, he was just great."
Suitably, Elias will honor the memory of Jobim, who died in 1994,
at her concert at the Peddie School, as she does at most of her live
shows, be they at Birdland or the Blue Note in Manhattan or at large
"Jobim is really the father of Brazilian standards, and his music
became a great vehicle for improvisation, because it was very much
like American standards," she says. And since Jobim was influenced
by Cole Porter and other Tin Pan Alley songsters, that’s not surprising.
"Also, bossa nova was a beat that could be done easily by Americans,
because even though they might not understand Brazilian music, bossa
nova is really a mix of bebop and samba," she adds.
Asked to comment on the differences between the Brazilian jazz that’s
so popular on WBGO-FM and at places like S.O.B. (Sounds of Brazil),
a nightclub in Manhattan, Elias says the difference is in the beat.
"When you say what’s Brazilian jazz, in this sense, when you’re
talking about bossa nova, you’re talking about jazz. Okay, there is
difference in the groove, but basically, harmonically, and in terms
of improvisation, it’s just like American jazz," she explains.
"The concept is exactly the same, it just has a slightly different
For whatever reason, Elias is taken aback when told she will also
be doing a pre-concert lecture-demonstration before the show at 8
p.m. She will be sharing her expertise on the differences between
Brazilian jazz and American jazz — and demonstrating them on piano
— before she performs a set with her trio, which includes bassist
Mark Johnson and Satoshi Takeishi on drums.
"Okay, very good. If you tell me so, we’ll be there and we’ll
do that," she says, laughing again.
— Richard J. Skelly
Theater, Hightstown, 609-490-7550. The Brazilian jazz pianist and
singer inaugurates the new "Jazz Fridays" series at Peddie.
$15. Friday, October 8, 8 p.m.
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