Eliane Elias arrived in New York as a jazz prodigy ready to take on the world she knew from listening to records in her native Sao Paulo. And she did. The first female instrumentalist to make the cover of Downbeat magazine, and a five-time Grammy nominee, Elias was signed to Blue Note Records early in her career and now records on Concord. Her last album, 2013’s Chet Baker tribute I Thought About You, went to no. 4 on the Billboard Jazz Albums chart.
While Elias has also been known for her recordings of Brazilian music, Made in Brazil, which comes out Tuesday (March 31), is the first album that she produced in Brazil since moving to the United States three decades ago. Sensual and breezy, the set — which includes classics “Waters of March” and “Aquarela do Brasil,” as well as six of her own compositions — transmits Elias’ delight at recording in her homeland with local musicians.
Elias starts a U.S. tour the day the album releases at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. She’ll swing through Chicago and Boston in April before playing New York’s Birdland, performing with Sergio Mendes in Orlando, and heading to California.
Billboard spoke to the pianist on her homegrown new album, finding the right piano in Brazil, and being a blond Brazilian woman amongst the American male jazz elite.
Throughout your career your music has been informed by your Brazilian heritage; you´ve recorded Brazilian music as well as straight-ahead jazz. This is the first album you´ve recorded in Brazil in a very long time. Why now, and why not before?
I haven´t made an album in Brazil since I moved to New York in 1981. I was playing jazz, and then with the years I started bringing more Brazilian music into the recordings. I had musicians I worked with here like [the great bossa nova guitarist] Oscar Castro-Neves. After Oscar passed away [in 2013], I was on a trip to Brazil, and I said it would be really great to do an album here in my hometown, in Sao Paulo. I wrote all the material there. The title Made in Brazil comes from myself being a pure Brazilian, of course, but everything was conceived there, the music was written there, the arrangements were written there by me. The basic tracks all were recorded there, and then it branched out. We went to London to put strings. It was really fantastic a great experience a great vibe, and of course, sharing the music of Brazil with the Brazilians, the people who feel this music the way it really is and live this music.
How did recording in Brazil feel different?
It was the vibe. Even going to the rehearsal, driving through Sao Paulo, the climate there. It was summer, everyone’s wearing shorts, we get together, we go out, we have pizza or other things to eat. And fun, you know, it was fun. It’s very warm, and not only the weather, the people there.
And then the music. It’s their language. Like when they heard “Waters of March,” which is a tune that a lot of people know. It’s the most covered tune, even more than “The Girl From Ipanema.” They know intimately what that tune is, what that music is, so they can really hear it. It was that enthusiasm, that feeling of being together. All of the players could really play the way I envisioned the tunes to be played.
When you left Brazil, what were you looking for?
Since I was a kid I was in love with jazz. I had always played the music, played jazz, been an improviser. I had the sound in my mind, and the musicians that I heard playing that were the musicians that I sought when I moved to New York, the people that influenced me and the history of jazz.
Of course I’m Brazilian. I worked with Jobim, many of the greats, which was fantastic to play Brazilian music with the creators of that language. But I wanted to play jazz.
When I arrived it was something quite different — a woman coming from South America, a white, blond Brazilian woman coming in. And I was accepted immediately, embraced, and I felt the super responsibility of giving continuity to that language that I had admired and studied and specialized in. So I recorded many jazz records and then I started bringing the Brazilian side in. Brazilian music never left me.
A lot of Brazilian artists focus their careers on Brazil, since it is a large country with an audience to sustain them without going abroad.
I moved here to New York when I was 21 years old. I’m now in my 50s, so my career has been an international career. Brazil is very special, but it’s treated like all the other countries I perform in.
And you’d be surprised, but there are not so many venues in Brazil that are appropriate for piano. Brazil is a country of guitar. You’d be surprised how you can’t find a good piano, so you can’t go so many places on tour because you wouldn’t find the right instrument to perform. You have to go to the major cities.
What have been some of the challenges of being a woman in the jazz field?
I have been a pioneer. It’s hard for women in general. The demands of being on the road all the time really, really get in the way of family and having relationships, having children. It’s very difficult.
Many times I would have to get on the plane to take my daughter [Amanda Brecker, who now sings professionally and performs on Made in Brazil] to Brazil to my mother’s. Then I would come back and go on a tour and then go back and get her. I had to have private tutors, private help. But she was always either with me or with the wonderful help of my mother. I didn’t really start taking this amount of touring until she went to college. I played 220 dates last year.
Your career began when you were very young. How did it happen?
I come from a musical family. My mother loved music; she played classical piano and loved jazz. And we had a piano in the house. Not many homes had a piano in the house, but we had a piano. When I was seven years old, I started taking piano lessons and it became very quickly apparent that the ability I had for the instrument was incredible. The way of producing sound was something different, and I also could write music, I could transcribe music. I would go to the teacher and I would start playing things, and the teacher would have tears rolling down her face. And I would say mom, I don’t want to go anymore because the teacher was crying all the time. As a child I already had a facility for playing, and I had another facility; I hear every note, I can transcribe anything. I can write any rhythm, any time. So I would put my record player — I had jazz records — I would put on Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, and I would write down every note they played and play along with the record. So at the age of ten I was a child prodigy already. I was already writing music at that age.