Eliane Elias

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the baddest pianist of all? There’s no right answer to the query of course, but Eliane Elias’s recent album of glorious tête-à-têtes with Chick Corea and Chucho Valdés, Mirror Mirror, makes a compelling case that the Brazilian-born Elias is a serious contender for superlative honors.

Eliane Elias - "Mirror Mirror"
Mirror Mirror

Arriving in the Bay Area this week for four shows at Yoshi’s Nov. 19–20 with her trio featuring bassist Marc Johnson and Rio de Janeiro-raised drummer Rafael Barata, she won’t be playing any piano duos. But the Candid album Mirror Mirror offers a singularly impressive reflection of her keyboard prowess and emotional range.

The encounters with Corea, who died unexpectedly last February at 79, were spontaneous studio creations, with no rehearsal or game plan. Exploring two of his signature compositions, the title track and “Armando’s Rhumba,” Kenny Dorham’s standard “Blue Bossa,” and the 1942 Harry Warren hit “There Will Never Be Another You,” they clearly revel in each other’s company. Playful but focused, rhythmically taut and expansively lyrical, the performances are consistently enthralling.

While Corea was a full generation older than Elias, their shared musical influences are evident as they draw on their love of Mozart, Bach, and Ravel, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, and in Elias’s case, Corea himself. Their interactions sound immediate and effortless, adding another posthumous chapter to Corea’s storied history of impromptu duets with fellow jazz piano masters (particularly Herbie Hancock, Stefano Bollani, and Hiromi).

“With Chick we didn’t talk about anything,” Elias said. “What you hear and see on video presentation, it’s what we played. There was this affinity between us that was so beautiful.”

The three tracks with Valdés tell a very different, and perhaps unexpected story. Valdés earned international fame in the 1970s as the leader and co-founder of Irakere, the seminal Cuban supergroup that also launched Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D’Rivera, Miguel “Anga” Díaz, and others. In recent decades, he’s left a trail of awed pianists in his wake with his enormous hands summoning Afro-Cuban rhythms, European classical harmonies, jazz syncopation and improvisation in a torrential stream of sound that never lets you forget that the piano is essentially 88 tuned drums.

Eliane Elias and Chucho Valdés
Eliane Elias and Chucho Valdés 

One might assume he and Elias would explore some intermediate territory between Cuban and Brazilian jazz, but their duos focus on lush balladry, with exquisitely constructed lyrical flights based on the classic Latin American pop songs “Esta Tarde Vi Llover” by epochal Mexican songwriter Armando Manzanero (who died shortly after the recording), Spanish pop star Alejandro Sanz’s “Corazon Partío,” and the bolero standard “Sabor a Mí” by prolific Mexican composer Álvaro Carrillo.

Elias started thinking about recording with Valdés after experiencing a 2008 duo piano concert he performed with his father, Bebo Valdés (1918 – 2013), a giant of Cuban music who, unlike his son, went into exile after the 1959 revolution. Given a seat of honor at their headlining concert at the 40th International Jazz Festival of Barcelona, she soaked up the father-and-son collaboration. “It was so beautiful, and they played in such a sensitive, lyrical way,” she recalled. “I felt back then that someday I’d like to do duets with Chucho.”

He was game, but wasn’t expecting a program of sentimental pop songs. “He was surprised I knew the tunes and loved the idea,” Elias said. “I brought chord changes and we played through them at his home briefly. When the date came, the only thing we talked out was who solos first. It was so open. That’s the beauty of improvisation, when you create together.”

Eliane Elias and Chucho Valdés – “Sabor a Mí”

Elias credits her mother, who hails from a Spanish Basque family, with introducing her to Spanish-language popular music. A classical pianist, her mother also nurtured the musical gifts her daughter manifested as a child. Transcribing and playing along with records by Bud Powell, Art Tatum, and Miles Davis before she was a teenager, Elias was only 15 when she started teaching master classes at the São Paulo conservatory Free Center of Music Apprenticeship.

While she thrived on the highly competitive São Paulo scene, playing in the big band of guitarist Sebastião Tapajós, and accompanying Vinicius Moraes, the poet/songwriter who collaborated with Jobim on many of his greatest tunes, Elias was biding her time until she could make the move to New York City. With encouragement from bassist Eddie Gomez, she made the leap in 1981. Before long Elias landed a job with vibraphonist Mike Mainieri’s Steps Ahead, the influnetial but now overlooked fusion band which then featured Gomez, tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, and drummer Peter Erskine.

Marc Johnson
Marc Johnson | Credit: Jos Knaepen

Before long she revealed that she also possessed a winsome voice and a highly personal vision as a composer who fully integrated the post-bop jazz continuum and various Brazilian idioms, particularly bossa nova. Over four decades, she’s created an expansive, treasure-laden discography, with some 30 albums for Denon, Blue Note, and Concord Jazz. While Elias is likely to reference the new Candid album with Corea and Valdés at Yoshi’s, another pianist will also be present in spirit. Every time she plays with bassist Marc Johnson, a longtime musical partner who’s also her husband, Bill Evans is in the house.

Like just about every other pianist who came of age after Miles Davis’s 1959 album Kind of Blue, Elias was profoundly influenced by Evans, and recorded her own tribute to him with the 2008 Blue Note album Something for You: Eliane Elias Sings & Plays Bill Evans. But Johnson’s formative ties to Evans run especially deep. His relationship with the pianist is back in the spotlight with the recent publication of drummer Joe La Barbera’s memoir (with journalist Charles Levin) Times Remembered: The Final Years of the Bill Evans Trio.

Arguably the most influential modern pianist to emerge after Bud Powell, Evans launched a new trio in 1978 anchored by the 24-year-old Johnson, a group that performed widely until the pianist’s death in 1980. In addition to a series of live trio sessions that Evans released during his life, several posthumously produced box sets have come out documenting the trio’s long runs at the Village Vanguard and Keystone Korner (the North Beach club where my favorite trio box was recorded, Milestone’s eight-disc The Last Waltz: The Final Recordings).

Much more focused on the music he’s making now — he just released Overpass, a beautiful solo bass album on ECM — Johnson doesn’t listen to those recordings or dwell much on the past. “But it never really leaves you,” he said. “It was such an important part of my development as a young bassist, being part of that trio and the lineage of bassists who came through it. That was the spark that got me going in this direction in music and life and led me to where I am now. The fact that Eliane is classically trained and shares Bill’s affinity for sound production, knowledge of harmony, and voicings resonates constantly.”

Elias said that the Yoshi’s shows will include piano solos, duos with Johnson, trio pieces, and vocals. She’ll also feature Johnson on a solo bass piece each set, “probably ‘Nardis,’” he said. “It’s such an iconic piece by Bill. We used to close every set with it. I know the form and structure so well I can usually get somewhere with it.”

Eliane Elias and Marc Johnson
Eliane Elias and Marc Johnson | Credit: Roy Borghouts 

The Yoshi’s engagement represents a major step in Elias’s return to the stage, and not just because of the pandemic. She suffered a freak accident over the summer at home when her foot caught in a basement trench during a construction project. After seven hours of surgery to repair the damage, she had to keep the foot elevated for weeks, which meant she couldn’t sit at the piano. She only started walking a month ago.

“I finally got the clearance for some November dates,” she said. “I’m so excited to be performing again. The first month I couldn’t touch the piano. When I could finally sit at the bench, I couldn’t use the pedals, though that was fine. I can play legato by hand. And now I can do everything.”

It’s been apparent for a long time that Elias can indeed do anything. Keeping company with Chick Corea and Chucho Valdés offers a welcome reminder of her limitless creative scope. 

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