Around the City With Eliane Elias

Experienced musicians sometimes find it tempting to stick with already-established styles in their later albums. Jazz pianist Eliane Elias talks about breaking the mold.

Eliane Elias, one of the most gifted improvisers in jazz piano, has crafted new material that features her hypnotic voice, defined not so much by its range as by its texture—a seductive mix of granular passion and velveteen whispers that serves as an assuasive counterpoint to her rapid-fire runs across the keys. In her latest album, Around the City, Elias shows signs she is making the radical change many great artists experience at some point in their careers. With this collection of cover songs and vignettes about city life, Elias has blended the spontaneity of acoustic improvisation with the sculpted perfectionism of the urban-contemporary soundscape.

“If you look at the body of work that I’ve recorded, Around the City has more of a pop sensibility,” Elias says in a telephone interview from her Manhattan home. “And as an artist in the business of recording, I want to appeal to a larger audience without sacrificing the integrity of the music.”

Born in São Paulo, Brazil, Elias began studying piano when she was seven years old. She graduated from Brazil’s illustrious Free Center for Music Apprenticeship at age 15 and immediately began teaching master’s-level improvisation classes in the school’s piano department. Two years later, she was on the road with Brazilian bossa nova giants Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes.

“We traveled all over South America,” Elias says. “And the time I shared with them as people and artists was fantastic. They were so open-minded. Vinicius de Moraes was one of the greatest poets we ever had in Brazil. He was also a diplomat at a certain point in his life. He had an insight and intelligence—an emotional intelligence—that was so influential to me.”

Elias not only learned from the Brazilian masters during her teens, but she also composed music and began performing her own material on the club circuit. In 1981, she met bassist extraordinaire Eddie Gomez, who would later become one of her long-time collaborators. Gomez suggested that she further her career in New York City, but Elias already had been planning to make such a move since she was a child.

“When I was 11 or 12, I did a lot of TV and radio interviews and I was frequently asked what my intentions were. And my response was always, ‘I’m going to New York to become a jazz musician.’ I had my mind set, perhaps because all of the records in my collection had ‘Recorded in New York City’ written on their back covers. But on a more serious note, I had been preparing myself all along as an instrumentalist. And Brazilian music is primarily vocal music. There were limited opportunities for musicians to play instrumental music in Brazil, so professionally, it made sense to come here. And after I established myself as a jazz pianist, I started to feel more comfortable doing other types of music.”

“I had my mind set, perhaps because all of the records in my collection had ‘Recorded in New York City’ written on their back covers.” Once in New York, Elias joined Gomez’s jazz-fusion ensemble Steps Ahead, which included superstars Michael Brecker, Peter Erskine, and Mike Manieri. While on tour with the band, she met Herbie Hancock, who became a fan of her music and would eventually work with Elias on her Grammy-nominated Solos and Duets. Elias played on Steps Ahead’s self-titled release and went on to record an album, Amanda, with trumpeter Randy Brecker. She initially stuck to instrumental compositions, honing her inimitable improvisational style with a vast array of original compositions and jazz classics. Her 1989 release, Eliane Elias Plays Jobim, was the first album to include a song with Elias as a vocalist—the lovely “Don’t Ever Go Away.” After requests from fans to do more vocal work, she followed up with Eliane Elias Sings Jobim and The Three Americas, an exquisite blend of instrumental and vocal pieces inspired by North, Central and South American musical styles. “The music on The Three Americas included elements of bebop, Caribbean rhythms, and Brazilian material,” she explains. “The theme is basically the three Americas merging and beating as one heart, sometimes within the same song, like in ‘The Time Is Now.’“

The main attraction on Dreamer, released in 2004, and her latest, Around the City, is the emotional depth of Elias’s singing—anguished, soothing, soulfully coarse—a sharp contrast to the almost secondary role her voice plays on The Three Americas and the Jobim albums. I am curious whether Elias made a conscious decision to modify her vocal style.

“It’s interesting, because when I did Sings Jobim, I was singing as a pianist doing the vocals. When I did Dreamer, I was putting my voice first with a type of material that called for that interpretation—American and Brazilian songs with a bossa nova style. And once I started touring with Dreamer, after about a year and a half, I was singing so much more, getting more comfortable, and I think my voice developed as a result. Before Dreamer, I wasn’t accustomed to singing so much, so the development of my voice was something that happened with time.”

Elias’s vocals aren’t the only surprise awaiting listeners of Around the City. She also introduces a wealth of studio techniques into her material with co-producer Andres Levin’s assistance. “Andres brought some very interesting concepts to the table,” Elias says. “We worked with loops, where we’d loop something played by one of us and incorporate it into the song to create some really interesting sounds. Andres also brought in Latin and Cuban percussionists who mixed well with the musicians who work with me. For example, ‘Oye Como Va’ has two different percussionists playing on it, fusing together to form a sort of bossa-Latin groove. Andres had a thorough knowledge of what I had done before. He was always a fan of my music, which made it easier for me to express what I wanted. He understood my music and took me where I wanted to go.”

During an appearance this autumn at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club, Elias’s song “Running” showcased her newfound appreciation for electronics, with laptop-generated percussion loops inserted by drummer Satoshi Takeishi, who also sustained the rhythmic complexity of the evening’s repertoire with splendid brushwork. The resonant beauty of bassist Marc Johnson’s subtle accompaniment embraced the melodic components of every number while guitarist Rubens de La Corte blended gentle acoustic strumming with effects to produce sounds ranging from Brazilian-style chord sequences to electric violin simulations. Along with the material from Around the City, her 18th album, Elias also offered her own interpretations of Johnny Mercer’s “Tangerine” and “Photograph,” a Jobim classic.

“When I did Sings Jobim, I was singing as a pianist doing the vocals. When I did Dreamer, I was putting my voice first.” Throughout Elias’s stellar performance, some members of the audience shouted requests for early material, and I wondered how her musically conservative fans truly felt about her venture into the sonic realm of sophisticated studio technologies. But at Dizzy’s Club, she satisfied everyone with a generous assortment of jazz standards and playful jaunts into the world of electronica, a splendid addition to this fall’s Women in Jazz Festival at Lincoln Center.

A creative equilibrium between traditional jazz and technopop is exemplified by Elias’s song “Segredos” (“Secrets”), a languishing love ballad from Around the City that reappears as an instrumental reprise at the end of the album, combining dark chords and intricate high-end meandering through the melody established by the earlier vocal track. I am surprised to learn from Elias that the piece was originally one song that had been broken up into two separate ones.

“When I initially played ‘Segredos,’ it was much longer,” she explains. “And the record-company executives consulted with me and said that the song had the potential to get some airplay. But a radio station won’t play a song that runs longer than a specified length of time. So I considered this, and while putting the CD together, I decided that if I did separate it into two parts, the result would have to be something interesting, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. In the end it was a business decision that worked for me. And I was able to save a little secret for the end,” she adds, chuckling.

It’s getting late and Elias has to catch a flight. She has just returned from Los Angeles, and although she remains on West Coast time, she is scheduled to do a series of concerts in Paris before the European leg of her tour officially begins to celebrate Around the City’s No. 1 position on the French jazz charts. Having listened to the album dozens of times, I have to ask one final question—did the urban landscape of New York City inform her work on her new album?

“Sure it did,” she says. “There’s something so vibrant about this city. There’s a sophistication, and yet at the same time, this place is so down-to-earth, so funky. The title song, ‘Around the City,’ conveys the idea that something you really want can be so close to you—right there in front of you. And ‘Slide Show’ refers to the lively city streets with all of these people who have their own stories to tell. These city themes inspired me. My last record, Dreamer, did very well, but I didn’t want to make the same album again. I wanted to do something new. The artists I admire the most aren’t static in their careers. They’re always pursuing something different, and I like to take those same risks, too.”

Details about Eliane Elias’s upcoming shows to promote Around the City will be available at her website.