How would you describe the character of Brazilian music if you were to sum it up?
Brazilian music is a combination of great melodies, with beautiful harmonies and great rhythms; whether it’s slow or fast. And it has to have sensuality too and be romantic.
From a musical perspective, what was it like growing up in São Paulo?
It was a very musical period when I was growing up. I was lucky because my mum, who played classical piano, had a great collection of jazz records so she played that music in the house. That’s how I fell in love with jazz. But Brazilian music was exploding. It was everywhere; on the radio, TV, and in the streets. There was also the bossa nova and so I grew up with all of this great music plus whatever was on the radio: you had pop music, like The Doors and all of those things. It was a very fertile period.
How old were you when you started learning the piano?
Seven and when I was ten I was already totally into jazz. I was transcribing jazz standards and playing along with the records and then I went to one of the best schools of music in the country and I finished the program when I was 15. After that I started teaching there and then a year later I was with (singer/songwriter) Toquinho and (Antonio Carlos) Jobim’s co-writer, Vinicius de Moraes. I was so fortunate and so blessed because I knew what I wanted to do from when I was a child. Some people go through life and don’t find a real passion or something that they love doing, so I was very lucky that I loved music so much.
Who were your early influences musically speaking?
The pianists were Art Tatum, Wynton Kelly, Erroll Garner and then of course, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett.
So how did it feel many years later to play on an album (‘Solos & Duets’) with Herbie Hancock?
That felt great but you know before that I was working with Steps Ahead and Herbie was playing with VSOP – it was him and Freddie Hubbard and Tony Williams. So we were touring together, two bands. We would play every night one hour and they would play one hour. Every night Herbie would go into the audience and sit in front of my piano. I was like 23 years old. He loved my playing. When I did my first record (‘Timeless’) there was a tune called ‘Through The Fire.’ And every interview that Herbie would have, when people would ask him he would say that I was the new great talent that was around. He would say that my music would bring him to tears. He actually told me this. He said when he first heard ‘Through The Fire,’ that he was in an aeroplane and that he started crying and had to put his face inside of a pillow to hide the tears. We have a very similar harmonic concept and the influences that I have were very much the influences that Herbie had: because he was very much influenced by Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly. So it was very natural for us to play together.
Talking of Bill Evans, you did a tribute album a couple of years ago, ‘Something for You.’
That was another important thing. That was incredible. I used to transcribe Bill’s music from his records when I was a kid and write it down. It was such a sensation for me to be able to do that. You magnify the sound when you concentrate so much on that sound and write it down and play it. It was an incredible feeling of achievement. All those years went by and then just three or four years ago Marc Johnson said to me that Bill Evans gave him a cassette about a month before he died. He told Marc: ‘do whatever you want with it.’ It was very hard for Marc when Bill died. He put it away. Then he brought it one day and said do you want to listen to it with me? So we heard it and it was Bill doing all these new songs that he hadn’t finished. I said ‘Marc, let’s do a tribute to Bill.’ I finished one of the songs and recorded another one – we wrote lyrics to it and then did the tribute to Bill Evans. That was very emotional. I was transcribing again what he had done very closely from the cassette. It was that feeling that I had when I was a child. I felt that I was a child again. Bill Evans had a beautiful sonority, a beautiful concept of interplay, of trio playing, and musical communication and the dialogue. He was very romantic and nostalgic too.
But that’s very different from what you’re doing at the moment.
Very different. That’s all part of me; All these different things. That’s why it’s so wonderful and I feel so blessed, again, to be able to do different things. Because they’re all real, you know. I’m not trying to force anything. They are all genuine, truthful things. I am almost like a chameleon a little, changing colours. But they’re all my colours.
You’ve performed a lot of songs by your compatriot, songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobim, over the years. Obviously his music is special to you. What is it you love about his songs so much?
He was the father I think of Brazilian standards. He wrote over 300 songs and every one of them has something beautiful. He combined some of the European harmonies, beautiful harmonies, with our rhythms, and Brazilian romanticism and he combined it all so beautifully. It came so naturally to him. He was incredible.
He was associated, of course, with the bossa nova movement. Bossa nova has been going for over 50 years now. Why is it still so popular do you think?
It’s something that is here to stay. It’s not a fashion. It’s a great rhythm and the songs are much like standards. In fact you see how many songs – the American standards – sound great as bossa novas. I’ve been doing some pop and rock tunes that work really well with Brazilian rhythms. It’s a really nice rhythm. As long as the tune is great, it doesn’t matter what the tune is, whether it’s rock or whether it’s whatever.
You seem very adept at selecting and choosing good material, so I wanted to ask you what constitutes a good song from your perspective.
It’s a combination of things. First of all, the song has to speak to me. That’s what makes a song for me. And the words. If I’m singing I have to sing what I can relate to. I like romantic songs but they’re not usually about loss. I try to stay away from songs about romantic loss. It could be love for a country, love for a people, or love that you want to rekindle or something. So I like that type of romantic content but not the depressing type. And then harmonically, a song has got to be right too. Also, it’s got to be right for my voice although my range has expanded a lot from when I started ‘cos I started singing more and more.
Your first albums were mostly instrumental-based.
I really wanted to start off as an instrumentalist. Although on my very first recording with Randy Brecker I’m singing all over the record and that was like 1984. But that was an idea that he wanted. He loved the way I sang. He wanted me to sing but on that album I could barely breathe. I was nine months pregnant when we made that album so my diaphragm was affected. But in my mind being a singer was not for me and I wasn’t going to give up the piano.
Were you reluctant to become a singer?
Yeah, at first.
Why was that?
Because I have such a facility to play the piano. It’s an extension of my body. It’s the expression of my soul; it’s my everything. I can technically do whatever I want with it but my voice is not the same. I don’t have a big voice. But when I started doing more and more singing and the albums did so well and people loved them I couldn’t imagine not doing it now. I actually enjoy singing so much now.
What about the future? Do you have any projects in mind beyond this current album?
Right now I’m going to be touring for a year and a half on this project so I have a lot of touring. But I’m mixing an ECM album that is all instrumentals that Mark Johnson is recording and we co-wrote a lot of the music. So that’s coming out and takes care of my instrumental side, ‘cos it’s nice to do that too sometimes. And after that I’ll be working and writing music. I did have a week off recently and I wrote a new tune. So I’m starting to write and conceptualise what’s going to be next.
Is there anybody you’d like to collaborate or record with in particular?
I really enjoyed singing with Gilberto Gil and I’m going to look into some other possibilities of singing maybe a duet with somebody else. But I don’t know who it will be yet. I like how Gilberto brought a different sound to the record. He was so nice.
Eliane Elias’s new album ‘Light My Fire’ is out on September 5th via Concord Records.