“My first great love was jazz,” Eliane Elias told me recently. “At age 10 and 11, I used to spend hours and hours transcribing my mother’s jazz records; [by contrast,] the samba and bossa nova were just part of the DNA of the culture.” Her new album, Dance of Time, celebrates the 100th anniversary of the first samba recording. DownBeat published a short version of the Q&A in its June issue. Below is a longer one.
Eliane Elias Returns to Sao Paulo and the Samba
Samba is in Eliane Elias’ blood, but it was not the Brazilian singer-pianist’s first love. A piano prodigy in her native São Paulo, she was copping Red Garland licks as a jazz-besotted 12-year-old. Jazz always came first.
It still does. “My first great love was jazz,” she said recently. “At age 10 and 11, I used to spend hours and hours transcribing my mother’s jazz records; [by contrast,] the samba and Bossa Nova were just part of the DNA of the culture.”
For most of her career, including more than two dozen albums, her focus was on her spectacular, straight-ahead jazz piano style. In 2015, however, she returned to Brazil to record for the first time since she emigrated to New York in 1981. The result was 2015’s Grammy-winning Made in Brazil. For her latest album, Dance of Time, which commemorates the 100th anniversary of the first samba recording (“Pelo Telefone”), she once again chose to record in Brazil. The album includes a mix of samba classics (“Copacabana,” “O Pato,” “Sambou, Sambou”), original ballads, and standards.
In São Paulo, Elias had help from an enormously talented rhythm section including guitarist Marcus Teixeira, electric bassist Marcelo Mariano, and drummer Edu Ribeiro. Also on hand were some distinguished collaborators: two of her mentors, the Brazilian singer-songwriter-guitarist Toquinho and pianist Amilton Godoy, a founding member of the Zimbo Trio; singer/guitarist João Bosco; Mark Kibble of Take 6, who contributes lush vocal harmonies on three tracks; vibes player Mike Mainieri; and Randy Brecker (Elias’ ex-husband), who plays flugelhorn on a reharmonized version of “Speak Low.” Her current husband and regular acoustic bassist, Marc Johnson, co-produced the set.
Do you think of yourself these days as a pianist who happens to sing, or do you give both equal weight?
Eliane Elias: I feel I am a pianist first, although I’ve been singing for a long time, and it’s an integral part of what I do. But the piano – that’s my instrument. It’s like the continuation of my body, my soul.
How do you balance singing and playing?
Maybe 15 years ago I wasn’t as comfortable doing it as now. But I have gotten to a place where I love singing and playing. In fact, when I’m playing Brazilian things and doing all the syncopation, just the piano alone – with lots of offbeats in the left hand and improvising with the right – already that’s like two people. And then you add the voice, and it’s like, wow, OK!” [laughs].
It does sometimes seem like there are three of you when you’re singing and playing.
[Laughs] I shouldn’t say so, but you’re not too far off.
Why did you decide to record Dance of Time in Brazil?
I wanted to celebrate the samba, but I also wanted to celebrate these great Brazilian musicians who were so important in my life.
Is the rhythm section one that you couldn’t duplicate outside of Brazil?
The current album dispenses with the strings you used on your last album. Why?
Traditionally, I haven’t recorded with strings. This time, the harmonies and the tempos were different. As I was writing the arrangements, I felt we had to focus on the samba rhythms of my left hand – they had to be front and center. There were a few ballads where strings might have been nice, though. On [the ballad] “Little Paradise,” I thought about having Johnny Mandel write the strings. He wanted to work with me, and I was so honored. It didn’t happen, unfortunately, for logistical reasons. But when I recorded the song, there’s a moment that I sing, “A melody comes back to me / that we heard before,” and, at that moment, I quote a melody that was written by Johnny. But let’s not say which one it is – let people figure it out!
The final song on the album, “Not to Cry (Pra Nao Chorar),” a duet with Toquinho, is especially touching.
When Toquinho was in the studio with me, I reminded him that he had started a song back in 1978. I played a little of it, and he said, “Oh my, I forgot!” At the time he had called the song “Eliane,” but it was unfinished. The lyrics [in Portuguese] are all about our story – how he and I used to tour together in the 1970s with [the great Brazilian poet, lyricist and entertainer] Vinicius de Moraes, and how now he looks at photographs of that time and tries not to cry. So we finished it together. The lyrics he wrote are so beautiful they made me cry.