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Elias--A Rising Star From Sao Paulo


Jazz has taken on so many international colorations during the past decade that it should no longer be surprising to find a major new talent arriving from any point on the planet. Still, it is remarkable that one of the most gifted and fastest rising artists on the current scene is a 28-year-old pianist from Sao Paulo with the very musical name Eliane Elias. (Ill-YAH-nee Ill-EE-as.)

Winner of the recent Jazziz magazine poll for new talent of the year, Elias has a new album, "Cross Currents" (Blue Note 48785), and is about to launch her first cross-country tour to promote it. (She opens Thursday at Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood.)

The crosscurrents denoted by the album were foreordained, since she grew up with the gravitational forces of three elements competing for her attention.

"I was very lucky," she said in a telephone interview. "You might say that my musical influences began before I was born, because while my mother was pregnant with me she practiced the piano nine hours a day. She played classical piano--not professionally, but very well--and she loved jazz and had this enormous collection of American jazz records.

"Another early influence was my grandmother, who used to play the guitar, write songs and sing them to me. In fact, one song called 'Vou Ali e Ja Volto,' which she wrote in 1927 when she was 12 years old, always stayed in my mind.

"I recorded it in the new album and gave it to her as a birthday present." (Now known as "Coming and Going," the tune evolves from a Latin jazz piano solo into a choral vocal with all the jubilation of a Rio carnival.)

Along with the Brazilian music that surrounded her, Elias spent much of her childhood studying the records of Art Tatum, Nat King Cole, Erroll Garner, Wynton Kelly and Red Garland. Even during her classical studies at the Centro Livre de Apremdizagem Musica, a free music school which she attended from age 11, there was a bonus.

"I was lucky there, too, because they had a teacher who not only gave me classical instruction but also showed me all the beautiful old pop standard songs. Before I turned 13 I was ready to play just about any tune you could name."

At the school, which she says was more or less a counterpart to Berklee College in Boston, she progressed from studying to teaching. "By the time I was 15, I was teaching the master's class, directing the piano department, playing with trios at nightclubs until 2 or 3 in the morning, and getting up at 6:30 to stay in school all day. Luckily the teachers were friendly and didn't try to stop me."

At age 17, Elias moved to a bossa nova group led by one of the movement's founding fathers, Vinicius de Moraes. During her three years with Moraes, ending with his death in 1980, she had her heart set on moving to the States.

"I'm not putting down the Brazilian musicians, but I had heard people on records like Eddie Gomez and Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams and Jack de Johnette on drums; the Brazilians hadn't had that kind of exposure, so it was difficult for me to accomplish what I wanted.

"I had met a few American musicians in Sao Paulo; they encouraged me, but I felt I wasn't ready yet for the move. I went to Paris and went all over Europe as a tourist, checking things out; then Eddie Gomez, whom I met in Paris, encouraged me to go to New York. I arrived in August of 1981."

Gomez at that time was a member of the group known as Steps (later as Steps Ahead). Through him she met the others--Mike Mainieri, the vibraphonist, who helped her produce a demo record; Peter Erskine, the drummer, and Michael Brecker, the tenor saxophonist.

Within seven months after her arrival in New York Elias was a regular of Steps Ahead. On another job, with the drummer Bob Moses, she met Michael Brecker's brother Randy. "He was the last of the well-known musicians I met during that first year. We were married in February, 1983, and our daughter, Amanda, was born in March of 1984. She's spending the summer with my family in Brazil while I'm on tour and Randy's on the road in Europe."

After the birth of her daughter, Elias collaborated with her husband on an album, "Amanda," displaying her Brazilian roots in an electrified context. The albums under her own name are strictly acoustic.

The extent to which "Cross Currents" represents her evolution is reflected in the album's repertoire. Along with her grandmother's song the program includes a Bud Powell bebop standard, "Hallucinations," an old Charles Mingus piece, "East Coastin'," Victor Young's "Beautiful Love," the old Disney song "When You Wish Upon a Star," and four Elias originals.

The progress she has made since her arrival in this country is characteristic of most careers involving artists from overseas who have set their sights on a jazz life. With very few exceptions (Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli come to mind), they have decided, sooner or later, to emigrate to the native land of the music.

"When I was growing up," says Elias, "there wasn't that much happening in Sao Paulo in terms of instrumental jazz. Most of the jobs were not very rewarding, like accompanying singers. I knew from a very early time that sooner or later I would go to the States and become a professional jazz musician."

This does not mean that you can't go home again. "A while back," says Elias, "I went back to Brazil for a month just to write, and I came up with some beautiful stuff, very melodic but with a beat. I wrote seven tunes in that month and felt really good about it. But as for the musicians I want to use on the next album, and the studio I'll choose--well, you know I'm going to do it where everything has worked so well for me during the past seven years. I still love Brazil, but New York is where jazz is happening."

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