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The Love for the Music

Eliane Elias Pairs Talent with Passion

It would likely be natural to have expected “big things” from a prodigy who, at age 12, was transcribing the solos of jazz masters and, at age 15, was teaching improv and piano at Brazil’s acclaimed Centro Livre de Aprendizagem Musical (CLAM) to students well older than herself, but Eliane Elias’ career and life have exceeded even the highest levels of success suggested by her early accomplishments.

Teenage collaborations in Brazil with the likes of Toquinho and Vinicius de Moraes led to a move to New York City and an invitation to join iconic jazz fusion group Steps Ahead when Elias was still in her early 20s. Solo projects followed, finding her working with the likes of Randy Brecker, Stanley Clarke, and Peter Erskine, among many others, and her albums have repeatedly topped critics’ polls and jazz radio charts. Her recordings have earned Eliane Elias eight Grammy Award nominations with one win (2015 Best Latin Jazz Album – Made in Brazil).

In March of this year, Elias released Dance of Time (Concord), which debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Traditional Jazz and World Music Charts and quickly became a global best-seller.

More than 35 years into her professional career, Eliane Elias isn’t just “still going strong” – she’s better than ever.

Recently Elias took the time to speak with JAZZed about how she first became interested in music, what she enjoys most about playing and performing, and what she values most in music educators.

How did you first get exposed to music and, specifically, to jazz?

Jazz was something special that happened in my life because my mother had a great collection of records, jazz records. She’d always be playing piano, so music was all around me as I grew up. She loved jazz, so I had the records. I probably heard more jazz in my home that any typical American child would have been hearing…

My father travelled on business trips often and as a child I would ask him to bring me home jazz records – albums I had seen in catalogs. It was a musically eclectic household.

Well, that’s really great that you got that sort of early exposure to so much variety.

It is great. And then I fell in love with it and I remember, you know, my first memories of, like, the emotion that I would feel when I would hear that music, you know? I’d get excited by the improvisation and I wanted to do that. I knew that’s I wanted and that’s what I started doing before I started studying harmony or anything – I would write it all down and play along with the record.

I would transcribe Art Tatum. Oh, Art Tatum, Bud Powell… So, I went through different pianists. All of those, they influenced me and my work with their music at different times of my youth. I heard Bill Evans and fell in love with his playing, his approach to harmony and the interactive playing within the trio.

But my interest in jazz came about because it was around then in my life. It was something that would just get to me. It was the language as well as the improvisation.

Of course you were also naturally exposed to Brazilian music.

Well, what happened is – let me put this to you that I was surrounded! When I was studying piano, I was studying classical with the intension, of course, of developing techniques sound and be able to execute ideas and learn.

Elaine performing with bassist (and husband) Marc Johnson.


I mean, that is the way to go. But at the same time, the Brazilian music was surrounding all of us then, exploding everywhere where you could hear – from a TV commercial to several programs on TV that featured new writers or new competitions; everything at the time came with great music. So, I wanted all of those sounds – whatever style it was.

In Brazil, piano would be considered more for classical music because of the rhythm, these are played by percussionists. And then they had traditionally voiced guitar – acoustic guitar – and that was the tradition. So, the jazz piano really got to me because it was expressive – rhythmically expressive – in a different way.

Aside from your family and exposure to recordings, can you talk about any early influences or any early educators or teachers who were, you know, particularly influential to you or and your process?

I started studying at age seven. Just normal… you know, normal training, playing the piano.

And then, one day, the teacher… I had to come terms with the fact that when I was playing, for the teachers, they would eventually be tears many times.

They cried? Why?

Yes. So, as a child I said to my mom, “The teacher cries during our lessons!” My teacher would call to another teacher to hear me, you know? The teacher then explained to me that I had a way of playing the same exercises, the same pieces that other children who were studying, as well as classical pieces, that was very different than the other kids. I saw what she meant with some of the kids who had been studying for a few years before I started, including my sister, who is older than me by a couple of years and had started taking piano two years before me. And then, after only a couple of months, I was just faster, faster and had mastered everything a child would normally do in two or more years. Everything that they had done I was able go further and faster because I had the facilities. But it wasn’t just the facility – I had the love for the music because I grew up with my mother playing classical music and playing that great collection of jazz records. So, at age 10, I was able to hear, you know, pretty much everything like clearly, like, visualize – almost like things that I heard was almost actually a score, you know? I was a child prodigy, as they say.

So, by age 10 I was transcribing some of the, you know, idols that I had – American jazz pianists, like I mentioned earlier – and playing along with the records, which wasn’t really something unusual to me, but was very unusual compared to other students my age, and I had a repertoire of standards that I played. And at that point, I’m age 13 and I was accepted to the school called CLAM, one of Brazil’s best music schools, and I graduated in two years. That very same year, I was asked to teach at the school, so I began teaching at the age of 15 – teaching piano, theory, jazz improvisation, and so on. And my students were much, much, much older than I was. They were professional, they were older and it’s incredible when I think of it now. I love that, you know? A few years after that I started working with Toquinho, Vinicius de Moraes, and Antonio Carlos Jobim.

That’s quite the start to a professional career!

Yes, my career started very early. And when I entered the school, you know, it was clearly explained to me that I was going to study with different teachers, so maybe someday I’ll become as accomplished as they are. When I look back at that time in my life now I can say, “Yes, that was different!”

Then I was made professor of the piano department and I continued teaching until I was 19, so I taught there for four years. But my touring became really, really intense at that point. I was all over – not just in Brazil, but the whole of South America.

So your studies were pretty much over by that point?

I mean, I also had studied classical music. I studied with Amildon Godoy and Amaral Vieira. Goday has a kind of classic French technique, so I studied with him. He was the one who had asked me to teach at CLAM. The school still has all my work, like all of my music notations, all my handwritten work. But I help to create the syllabus for the school.

At that age? Wow, that’s impressive.

Yes, I helped create the syllabus and method books, which is something that they use until today and I was a part of that. So, I continued teaching, but I was also performing at night and playing with my trio in different clubs in São Paulo, where I’m from in Brazil. I was also directing some modern ensembles until, at age 17, I was invited to tour with the singer-songwriter Toquinho and the lyricist Vinicius de Moraes, one of the greatest in bossa nova Brazilian music. We were touring extensively, travelling all over South America. I knew I wanted to come to America, though. I knew that at this point.

Right, right. Again – you really hit the ground running!

And then when I moved to New York, I continued study at Juilliard with Olegna Fuschi, but all throughout the ’90s, you know, I was teaching at Manhattan School of Music and elsewhere.

That was right around when you joined Steps Ahead, yes?

I was asked to become part of Steps Ahead in 1982, yes.

And, of course, you eventually were working with Michael  and Randy Brecker.

Yeah – Randy Brecker, Michael Brecker. It was great, it was a fantastic time. Amanda was my very first record, named after my daughter with Randy Brecker.

While your early career was distinguished by working alongside all of these legendary, iconic figures, soon your own solo projects were garnering significant attention. You’ve already topped the jazz charts in countries around the world and won a Grammy for Made in Brazil, but the new release, Dance of Time may represent a new high for your career.

It’s been fantastic to see how the album has been received. I’m very proud of the music, you know? It’s great to be where I am today and to have achieved all I’ve been able to in my career.

Obviously you have a very busy recording and touring schedule. Do you still conduct any private lessons, or master classes? Do you have any time these days for teaching or is that no longer part of your life?

For the most part, I stopped doing that. You know, because I really didn’t have time. In fact, I was very recently offered a very prestigious teaching position, but I couldn’t accept because of my schedule.

I have done some teaching throughout the years on some special occasions – you know, very special occasions. I will do a residency of three, four days or I’ll do a master class, but it’s something that has to fit my schedule.

I very much enjoyed music education – the part of sharing the music and being around the students and helping them to develop and guiding them. I love that aspect. It’s just that my life has been so… with recording, touring I’m very, very busy and I had to kind of “retire” from teaching.

Going back to when you were doing more regular at teaching, what formats then and now did you find most enjoyable and most effective: one on one lessons, classroom format, master classes?

Well, I enjoyed all of the different aspects of each one of those things. For example, the one-to-one [format] is something so intimate that I can really go inside and really develop something with the student or show them something that’s really close to me. So, that’s quite special, especially for a student.

But I enjoyed very much when we did work with ensembles, having piano, bass, drums, guitar and horns. Just guiding them or helping with arranging, or helping with the sets of dialogue – you know, the conversation aspect of the music and how to listen and how to respond. And that aspect is very fun for me. And the master classes I think are wonderful, too. I mean, even in the master classes I can get pretty technical when I’m teaching. We can go deeply into subjects that the students may want to discuss at length – say, we’ll talk about the modes or substitutions and when to apply them. And then I can bring some of the kids up or a demo, myself. I mean, it’s fun. So, they’re all… all of it is great. As long as we’re dealing with music we’re doing great, right?

Absolutely. In terms of what when you’re guiding or mentoring younger musicians, or I guess musicians of any age, what do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of that process?

Well, it’s so rewarding to see the development of a young musician, the musical development. And when I see… for example when I see the result of the work both the student and I put in it’s very gratifying, because teaching is such an art. To me, a great teacher communicates with the students – that’s the main thing. To be a great teacher, it’s not necessary to be someone who’s on the world stage.

When I hear [the students’] progress and see their interest is rewarded when they develop, and to see also their excitement – it’s wonderful. They can hear what they’ve been reaching for in their own development. It’s very rewarding.

Absolutely. So, for our readers out there who are music educators, do you have any words of advice or encouragement, or just observations that you like to share?

I have so much appreciation for everyone who teaches and aspires to teach. I think teachers are so incredibly important in the life of the student. We, as teachers, don’t give… we cannot offer talent to a person, but we can abbreviate the time it would take this person to reach his or her greatest potential.

So, I think it’s very important there are other teachers who can reach each one of the students by recognizing which direction they’re going in and trying to open up possibilities to each one of them, according to what we sense is where they can ultimately go.

A very good point. Eliane, I want to thank you once again for taking the time to talk. I know that you have a very busy schedule.

Please, it’s my pleasure! Thank you so much and good luck. I’m really happy to be a part of JAZZed.

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