Jazz Singer

Brazilian Chanteuse/Pianist Eliane Elias Plays the Lobero

Eliane Elias’s latest release, Dreamer, is so in demand that even her management company can’t get copies. It’s gone through a second pressing and her label still can’t keep up with the orders. Luckily, the artist herself is a little more available than her disc. I recently spoke with the Brazilian pianist and singer by phone at her home in New York City.

Elias’s childhood and youth could serve as a working definition of the term “child prodigy.” Born in São Paolo, Brazil, she began formal classical piano lessons at the age of 7. Her parents recognized that, after studying for two months, Eliane had reached the same level of performance her older sister had spent two years attaining. It quickly became obvious that she played differently from typical students. And gradually her mother’s devotion to American jazz, which filled the house every day, began to soak into Eliane’s consciousness, and, as time would tell, her very soul.

“By the time I was 10 and 11,” she explained, “I was really in love with jazz. I had learned how to write music and I had such a facility with numbers and intervals that it was like writing my native Portuguese for me.” At this point she began transcribing the piano solos of Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, and Bill Evans, among others. “I was very young and was then concentrating on bebop that I loved so much. I remember listening to the music and writing the note-for-note transcriptions of the magic I was hearing while intense tears of joy streamed down my face. I’m sure my parents were wondering, ‘What’s with her?’ but nothing had ever moved me so. At 11, I already knew the whole book of American Jazz Standards.”

At the age of 13, Elias was accepted into Brazil’s top music school, which taught both classical music and jazz at a conservatory level. She continued her classical studies in tandem with jazz and graduated in two years, an unheard-of feat. The school’s administration asked her to stay on as a teacher, and, at 15, she became the director of the piano department. Two years later she was chosen by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes to be music director of their three-year concert series. When I asked whether she regretted foregoing her adolescence, she responded that she actually felt very fortunate to have had her life delineated so clearly at such a young age. “It was all driven by my passion for the music, and I never felt that I missed anything at all.”

Elias brings her well-known bebop piano tunes to the Lobero on Saturday, where she will be backed by guitarist Freddie Bryant—who is known for his comprehension of Brazilian music—and bassist Mark Johnson, who has played with Elias for many years and whom she describes as a virtuosic master of his instrument. Rounding out the quartet is drummer Satoshi Takeshi, born in Japan and part-time resident of Colombia and Miami, where he became a powerful interpreter of straight-ahead and Latin jazz, and with whom Elias has worked for 12 years. The ensemble should make for a fine evening of soulful crooning. When an 11-year-old Elias was asked what she wanted to do in life, she said that she was going to move to New York and be a jazz pianist. Now, she’d have to add, “and vocalist.” This promises to be a delightful, lyrical concert.

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