The classical tradition meets the spontaneity of jazz and Brazilian MPB through the virtuosic playing of São Paulo-born, New York-based pianist Eliane Elias. A former member of jazz ensemble Steps Ahead, Elias has consistently explored distinct musical streams through her solo recordings and her performances since the mid-'80s. In 1993, she became one of the first artists to release jazz and classical albums simultaneously with Paulistana and On the Classical Side. By the 21st century, she had become a Grammy Award winner for 2015's Made in Brasil, and a top concert draw all over the world. Her best-selling recordings consistently charted in her homeland, the U.S., Europe, and Asia.
Born in São Paulo in 1960, Elias may have inherited at least some of her musical talents from her mother, Lucy, a classical pianist who often played jazz records in the family home. After studying for six years at the Free Center of Music Apprenticeship in São Paulo, she continued to study classical technique with Amilton Godoy and Amaral Vieira. By her teens, Elias was composing her own pieces and performing in jazz clubs. While touring in Europe in 1981, she met jazz bassist Eddie Gomez and was encouraged to travel to New York. Arriving in the Big Apple the following year, she studied privately with Olegna Fuschi at the Juilliard School of Music. Elias' professional career received a boost when she was invited to join Steps Ahead, a jazz supergroup featuring Michael Brecker, Peter Erskine, Mike Manieri, and Eddie Gomez. She recorded one album with the group -- Steps Ahead -- in 1983.
Shortly after leaving Steps Ahead, Elias began collaborating with trumpet player Randy Brecker, whom she subsequently married but later divorced. Their sole duo album, Amanda, released in 1985, was named after their daughter. The following year, Elias launched her career as a bandleader, alternating tours with two different trios: one featuring drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Gomez, and the other featuring drummer Erskine and her husband, bassist Marc Johnson. Elias has also performed with a third trio, featuring Johnson on bass and Satoshi Takeishi on drums.
She signed with Blue Note in 1989, and released her debut for the label, So Far So Close, the same year with a slew of guests. While most of her recordings have been instrumental, Elias introduced her soft but coarse vocals on her 1990 album Eliane Elias Plays Jobim, and has employed vocals on occasion ever since. Her 1995 album, Solos and Duets, features a brilliantly executed duet with Herbie Hancock. In addition to working periodically with Toots Thielemans' Brasil Project, Elias has served as musical director for Gilberto Gil's group.
While she continued to record for the rest of the '90s, it was 2000's Impulsive! that proved one of the largest surprises in her career as she collaborated with conductor and arranger Bob Brookmeyer leading the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra. In 2002, she left Blue Note for RCA's Bluebird label, where she debuted with Kissed by Nature, a primarily vocal album, and followed it up with the lovely Dreamer in 2004. Elias released Around the City in 2006, a collection of primarily vocal tracks that moved ever further into pop territory, covering music by Santana, Bob Marley, and even Beck. It was her final album for Bluebird.
Elias returned to Blue Note for 2007's Something for You: Elaine Elias Sings & Plays Bill Evans, fronting a trio with Johnson (who played with Evans) and drummer Joey Baron. In 2009, she issued what many have argued is her finest recording, Bossa Nova Stories, fully engaging her Brazilian heritage in bossa and samba and illustrating her singular jazz instincts as a pianist. In 2010, Savoy Records issued Timeless Eliane Elias, a compilation of tracks culled from her mid-'80s recordings Illusions and Cross Currents. In late 2010, Elias signed with Concord; in the late spring of 2011 she released Light My Fire, her debut set on the label. A year later, Elias paired with bassist and husband Johnson for the instrumental ECM date Swept Away. In 2013, she paid homage to trumpeter/vocalist Chet Baker with I Thought About You: A Tribute to Chet Baker. Two years later, she delivered the lush homage to her Brazilian roots with Made in Brasil. The album took home the Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album.
In March 2017, Elias emerged with Dance of Time on Concord. In addition to her rhythm section of bassist Marcello Mariano and drummer Edu Ribeiro, her guest list included Mike Manieri, Randy Brecker, Mark Kibble, and João Bosco. The program was based on classic samba tunes and included the style in arrangements of jazz standards by Harry Warren and Kurt Weill. The set included three of her own compositions, as well as "Not to Cry (Pra Não Chorar)," a co-write with Toquinho. He'd begun the tune as "Eliane" a decade earlier, but it remained incomplete until their collaboration. Upon release, Dance of Time entered the Traditional Jazz Albums and World Music Albums Charts at number one. In November, The Latin Recording Academy awarded Dance of Time a Latin Grammy for Best Latin Jazz/Jazz Album.
Back in the mid-'90s, Elias was approached by Mitch Leigh, the Tony-winning composer of the iconic musical Man from La Mancha. He'd followed her career trajectory and greatly admired the album Eliane Elias Plays Jobim. Accompanied by Neil Warner, arranger for the original musical, he commissioned the pianist to re-arrange, perform, and record a new album of songs from the show. She was given complete interpretive freedom, which included choosing the songs she wanted to cut. In 1995, time was booked at The Power Station studio in New York. Elias hired two rhythm sections for the project, one with Jack DeJohnette and bassist Eddie Gomez, the other with Marc Johnson on bass and Satoshi Kateishi on drums with Manolo Badrena on percussion. Elias and her sidemen recorded live in studio and she settled on nine songs from the musical. The music was then mixed at Leigh's Secret Studio in New York. Most of the tunes chosen were first takes. Unfortunately, the completed album was shelved due to contractual complications and seemed doomed to obscurity. This was underscored when Leigh passed in 2014; he never saw its release. Concord stepped in and issued Music for Man of La Mancha in April of 2018, 23 years after it was recorded.
In 2019, Elias released the orchestral Love Stories, which found her reuniting with Made in Brasil-arranger Rob Mathes. ~ Craig Harris