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Grammy-winning Brazilian pianist and singer Eliane Elias heads to Seattle for shows at Triple Door

Eliane Elias
Courtesy of the artist
Eliane Elias

Robin Lloyd spoke with Eliane Elias about her new album of duets, "Mirror, Mirror," the pandemic and her shoe collection.

RL: We’re excited that you're coming to the Triple Door in Seattle, and you're touring on your new album, "Mirror Mirror," which is an amazing collection of duets — you with Chick Coreaand with Chucho Valdes. How did this project come about?

EE: Well, this particular album has been in my mind for a while. I have always liked playing piano duets, and with Chick Corea, we had talked about playing duets for a long time. I'd known him for so many years, decades really, and we always talked about, "Oh, we have to play some time and do something together." It happened that our schedules coincided at the end of 2018 and we said, "OK, let's do it."

When the time came, we were so excited. We texted each other, talked a little bit about tunes, made suggestions. He helped to arrange for the recording. He was a Yamaha artist, so we went to the Yamaha Artists Service in New York City, where the pianos were selected. We walked in and hugged each other and went right to our pianos. The engineers had already done the set up. So we came in and started playing. And what you hear on this recording is really remarkable, the way we played together. We're both so happy. The communication, the way we approached the music. We heard each other, the affinity that we demonstrated when we played together was very, very special.

RL: And I understand that you didn't really plan anything ahead of time.

EE: That's right. Except with some of the tunes, he mentioned a couple, and I mentioned a couple and it was, "OK I know that. OK, let's do those." And we didn't even count, you know, when you count off the tune before you start? Nothing, we just started playing, and that was it.

It was so hard for me, and for so many, that Chick left us. But I had no idea. He seemed so healthy, and we had plans to play together, to write things together. On the day he passed, I was mixing the recording, so I was immersed in our music. And it was it was very sad, but I'm thrilled that he left us with this. I believe this was the last studio recording he made. I'm very, very grateful that we had this opportunity.

RL: What’s your history with Chucho Valdes?

EE: He's a beautiful player. I met Chucho much later than I met Chick. I met Chick in 1978. I met Chucho, I think it was in 2000, the first time. He was playing duets with his father, Bebo Valdes, playing at the same theater in Barcelona that I was going to play the night after. I had the night off, and I was invited to go listen to their concert.

It was beautiful to see the way he played with his father. He was very sensitive to the way his father played and the music was melodic, had beautiful rhythms. When I met him afterwards, I said to him that I'd love to play duets too, someday.

He also knew of my work and liked everything I did. Then we kept seeing each other throughout the years at the same festivals, especially during the summer festival season, and we'd say hello. We'd go to each other's shows. I think it was that same year we played a jazz cruise together.

So once I did the duets with Chick, I said, "OK, this is it. Let me complete this beautiful work that I've done with Chick, with Chucho." And I really feel that what I've done with Chucho is so heartfelt, it has so much rhythm. The affinity, we played together really in a beautiful way.

I didn't know how it was going to come out, because Chick was a tremendous influence on my music in my young days, so I have always been very familiar with the way Chick plays and his writing, his compositions. I knew a lot more about how to relate musically to him than I would know how to relate to Chucho. But it came out beautifully. I'm very, very pleased, and it was very special.

I met Chucho before the recording. I was in Miami for a gig and the day before my concert, I went to his house and we had lunch and then we played some duets. And my husband, (bassist) Marc Johnson, was there too. And he loves the things that Bill Evans played. So Chucho and Marc also played some duets. It was such a fun day that we had together. I brought in a few charts for Chucho, just chord changes and the melody. He liked what I brought, and he was quite surprised that I knew those tunes because they were written by a Mexican composer, a Spanish composer, you know, like different types of tunes. And he said, "How do you know these?" And I told him it's because the way I grew up — my mom is the daughter of a Spanish Basque. She is a pianist. She had all kinds of music in the house, and some of these tunes I learned from her, from what she played.

RL: I feel like these two different pianists have a similar spirit. Did you feel that?

EE: What I feel is the affinity that happened with each one of them, myself with Chick and myself with Chucho, is so clearly heard on this recording. So I think in terms of the similar spirit, I would say it’s the spirit of the art of improvising, of listening. All of us have dedicated our lives to the act of improvising, of creating.

We share some influences. For example, Chick Corea, some of his major influences were the same as my influences, Bud Powell and Bill Evans. And then he recorded classical music, I recorded classical music, devoted time to the classical literature of piano. So there's a lot of affinity there. Same thing with Chucho, who loves Bill Evans, who also studied classically, who had a lot of the same kind of affinity for what he aimed to do musically, and so in this way, I would say that we all have a very similar musical spirit.

RL: You got an early start in music, didn't you?

EE: I was so young. I started studying when I was 7 years old. But my love for the instrument and the facility that I had was apparent. By the age of 11, I was transcribing solos from the great masters. I could hear and write down and play along with those solos, develop the language of improvisation and play along with those things. I was accepted at Brazil's best music school when I was 13, and by age 15, I became a teacher there.

Then I was touring starting at age 17 with some of the icons of the bossa nova and Brazilian music, likeJobim and Vinicius de Moraes, who was his lyricist and co-writer, traveling all throughout South America, in every country, for three years.

And then I moved to New York. I had met Chick when he was in Brazil 1978. I was just 18, and I played for him back then. He loved my playing and said, "Come to the United States. Here's my number." When I moved, I needed help for immigration, and actually Chick helped me, writing letters to Immigration, talking about the musical value that I would bring and what I would bring worldwide into this country. I mean, he was really very helpful to me.

RL: Have you played the Triple Door before?

EE: I played there once before, and I really enjoyed it. I love Seattle. I have a beautiful following of faithful fans there; I am always happy to see their faces. Although with the pandemic, we're all hiding a little bit behind our masks!

RL: Have you been touring, or what have you been able to do during the pandemic?

EE: Well, actually, I have not been touring. I haven't toured since November of 2019. Mostly because of the pandemic, but this particular year, I didn't tour because I suffered an accident on June 1st, and I had to find a surgeon that would do this operation, because my entire foot got destroyed, my right foot. It's called a Lisfranc fracture. The ligament was ruptured, and that ligament holds all the bones of your foot. Very, very complicated surgery, very difficult, they had to rebuild the ligament and put in several plates and screws.

The recovery has been extremely difficult.

I was almost four months in bed with my leg raised, elevated above the heart. But I'm walking now, and I can press the piano pedal.

All my fans know that I love clothes, and I have all these beautiful high-heeled shoes. I have a collection of shoes, I think, over 400 pairs. But all I can wear right now is a man's wide sneaker, almost two sizes bigger than my foot because it's all swollen. It's so funny actually, with all those shoes, I have to go on stage to play now wearing this! But I'm grateful it's getting better.

RL: You're going to need a lot of assistance on tour then, right?

EE: Yes, I do. But I'm walking, you know? It's difficult to go down stairs or big steps down, but I'm doing it. I'm doing a lot of physical therapy. I do aquatic therapy twice a week now; it was three times a week.

I canceled all of my work, whatever I had booked for this summer, private weddings and shows in Europe. I canceled July, August, September, October. The doctor said, "You can keep November." So here I go. I'm very excited.

RL: Well, we're delighted to have you back.

EE: Music is such a blessing, and I really hope that people come and listen to the music. I'll have my trio, Marc Johnson on bass and Rafael Barata on drums, and we're going to do some of those favorite Brazilian songs that we do and, of course, we'll do some tunes from the new album. It's going to be very special, and I can't wait. I'm so excited!

KNKX proudly presents Eliane Elias at the Triple Door Nov. 15 and 16.

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.