Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland Artist Spotlight: Eliane Elias
April 25, 2014
If Eliane Elias has limitations, she seems oblivious to them. The singer, pianist and songwriter travels the world, speaks at least four languages and claims legions of adoring fans (particularly in Japan).
The six-time Grammy nominee from Sao Paulo, Brazil genre-hops from bossa nova to jazz to standards to classical without missing a beat. She has even recorded a cover of The Doors’ “Light My Fire,” a classic rock standard. She travels upwards of 200 days a year, and has recorded more than 20 albums.
Oh, and she performs barefoot because she tends to keep time with her feet, and heels make noise on stage. Such is the life of an artist whose guiding principle seems to be “keep it real.”
“Everything musical that has happened to me has been completely natural,” Elias said. “I am always true to myself . . . There are all these different sides of me, and I am very lucky to be able to do this.”
She performs as part of Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland June 28 at Playhouse Square.
Elias began studying piano when she was 7 years old. Her mother was a classical pianist, and between that, the jazz always playing in the house and listening to Brazilian radio, she had a rich and eclectic musical upbringing. “That’s deeply rooted in me,” she said.
By 17, she was working with noted Brazilian singer and songwriter Toquinho and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s co-writer and lyricist, Vinicius de Moraes.
Still, that deeply rooted curiosity kept her looking around, making connections, plying her trade as a pianist, and eventually performing with a veritable who’s who of the jazz world. By the time she arrived in New York, Elias was a confident musician.
She moved to New York City in 1981, barely speaking English, but she said, “My impression was that New York was a cute, small town. It seemed small and safe.” She joined the group Steps Ahead and recorded one album with it in 1983. When she left the band, she began working with trumpeter Randy Brecker, who for a time would become her husband. Brecker encouraged her to further expand her horizons.
Elias released her first album, Amanda, a collaboration with Brecker, in 1985. It was named after their daughter and would mark the first time Elias sang on tape.
She made the move with some reservations.
“The piano is the extension of my body, an extension of my soul. I was worried the voice would compete with that, and I was protective,” Elias said. “At first it took some adjusting, but I got to a very comfortable place, such a comfortable place. It really has opened things up for me.”
Today, that voice has become central to her identity. She has been called the Brazilian Norah Jones and draws comparisons to jazz pianist and singer Diana Krall. Elias’ fingers still dance across the keyboard, but it’s her voice that has etched her name in the minds of many fans.
She has gone on to record such diverse titles as On the Classical Side, Bossa Nova Stories, Sings Jobim and Something For You: Eliane Elias Sings and Plays Bill Evans. Today, she is married to and performs with bassist Marc Johnson.
For all the fame and acclaim she has achieved, Elias still stays true to her artistic instincts. She said being nominated for Grammy awards was “very nice,” but “I never think, ‘OK. This will be successful’ . . . What the next album would be is whatever direction I want to go.”
That spirit of restless exploration is evident on her latest recording, released in 2013. It’s a tribute to Chet Baker titled I Thought About You.
“I am always thinking about new music,” Elias said.
Eliane Elias, 4 p.m. June 28, Playhouse Square, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., Cleveland. $22.50-$30. 216-987-4444.