A Classic Case of Crossover Artistry : Jazz pianist Eliane Elias may be from Brazil, but her repertoire is not just from Ipanema

<i> Don Heckman is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

Eliane Elias hasn’t needed the force of an earthquake to break down the glass ceilings and stylistic barriers of the music business. In the last decade, the Brazilian pianist/composer has convincingly demonstrated her skills in the still sometimes macho world of jazz improvisation.

It wasn’t always easy.

When she first came to New York in 1981, “I had to work very hard,” she said recently in a phone conversation from her New York City home. “Harder than a man with my skills might have had to work to become established. And, being attractive, being Brazilian, people had preset ideas. When I moved to New York, I got nice smiles and, ‘Oh, what’s your phone number?’ and I really wasn’t used to that. At first I thought, ‘Well, what’s all this about?’ But whenever I got a chance to sit down and play, oh boy, it changed.

“And, in a way, maybe it worked out for the best. If you go to a club and like the way a guy plays, you might remember him. But if you go and see a girl, and you like her playing, you’re going to definitely remember her.”

Last winter, Elias knocked aside yet another wall when she released a recording of exquisite performances of classical works by Bach, Chopin, Ravel and Villa-Lobos. The reception in the classical community has been, in Elias’ description, “very positive--much better than I ever expected.”

Elias, who performs Thursday at the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena with drummer Peter Erskine, bassist John Patitucci and her 9-year-old daughter, Amanda, had no plans for a classical music career when she came to this country.


“I never really thought of becoming a performing artist with classical music,” she said. “I had studied a lot of classical music as a child, of course, but jazz was always my first love. After I came to America I started studying at Juilliard mainly for the purpose of improving my technique to play jazz--exploring how the piano is a stringed, as well as a percussion instrument. And that kind of study had a real effect on the way I was writing, as well as the way I was approaching the instrument.

“What I didn’t expect was that I began getting these wonderful reactions from people I respected in the classical world. Then, when I made a tape of the Gershwin ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ some of the people who heard it began to rave about it. So when EMI approached me to do an album of solo classical pieces, I felt ready to do it.”

Perhaps appropriately, the ambitious, eclectically gifted Elias was born in Sao Paulo, southwest of the more laid-back and better known Rio de Janeiro. It is South America’s largest city and the energy center of Brazil.

“When I first came to America from Sao Paulo, I thought Manhattan looked like a little suburb,” Elias said with a laugh. “Sao Paulo is so big, and so crazy, even though it’s filled with very hard-working business and career people. But it’s somewhat neurotic, and very energetic--very different from the vibes from Rio.”

Which may be one of the reasons why Elias has seemed, at times, so elusive to the American jazz audience. From the moment the slender, attractive pianist became a visible performer, she has been the most unusual of Latin American imports--a jazz musician who happens to be Brazilian, rather than a Brazilian jazz musician.

Elias’ prodigal talents were recognized and respected at an early age, especially by her mother, Lucy, a classical pianist with a strong affection for jazz. But Elias’ vigorous appetite for all kinds of music also included a healthy sampling of Brazilian street rhythms--samba, choro --as well as American pop tunes. By the age of 15, she was already teaching master classes.


Her jazz skills had surfaced even earlier. At 11, she could play most of the repertoire of American classic pop songs. Her record collection included a wide array of American jazz pianists: Bud Powell (“He gave me goose bumps”); Red Garland (“When I heard him play ‘This Can’t Be Love’ it made me cry”); Nat Cole (“He made me crazy”); Art Tatum (“I couldn’t even believe what he was doing”).

“It was always very easy for me to write things down,” she recalled, “so I would spend hours with my little phonograph, putting the needle down here, putting it down there, and transcribing the solos.”

Initially, she resisted Brazilian musical associations when she came to the United States, eager to prove herself as a jazz musician.

More recently, she has begun to examine the Brazilian repertoire familiar to American audiences--the music of composers such as Antonio Carlos Jobim, Joao Gilberto, Ivan Lins, etc. Even with Brazilian music, however, she has insisted upon framing her readings in a dynamic jazz context.

Her Ambassador program will be a mixture of “everything I do--all my musical sides.” The performance of one of the Villa-Lobos pieces from her EMI classical album is a strong possibility. Among the certainties are some straight-ahead jazz, a few Brazilian numbers and at least one extended solo rendering of a ballad standard. Her daughter Amanda will also make her public debut, singing a Milton Nascimento song.

Balancing single parenthood (Elias, now 33, is currently separated from her husband, jazz trumpeter Randy Brecker) with a busy music career has not been easy for Elias.

“It’s been very difficult,” she said. “And it’s even more difficult now that she’s not so little anymore. When she was small, I worried about when she cried and got a fever. But now she’s a little person with feelings and emotional needs, which makes it very hard to leave her when I have to go on the road. Fortunately, she loves to go to Brazil in the summer to be with her grandparents, and that’s the time I try to schedule my touring. But it’s hard. I love music so much, and I could never get away from it, but I also want to center my life around my daughter, as well.”

Personal challenges aside, Elias has done a remarkable job of maintaining her creative integrity while establishing a successful entertainment business career in a new country.

“I don’t believe in walls between people, no matter where they come from, or between creative kinds of expression,” she said. “And I enjoy being an attractive woman. Why shouldn’t I? But my looks have nothing to do with my music. When you hear me play, judge me by my creativity, not my appearance.

“And the same thing, in a slightly different way, is true about playing different styles--Brazilian, classical music, jazz, whatever,” Elias continued. “If I can bring some of the free spirit of jazz to my classical playing, some of the discipline of classical music to my jazz improvising, and some of the spirit of Brazil to everything, then it seems to me that I can’t help but be a better artist with all kinds of music.”