Interview by Ernest Barteldes
Few Brazilian jazz performers today have reached the global status of Eliane Elias, who went from performing with Vinicius de Morais in her early career to becoming a bona-fide star in her own light. On her new album I Thought About You: A Tribute To Chet Baker, Elias looks back at the tragic trumpeter’s storied career by giving a fresh interpretation to many tunes identified with him, mixing “cool” West Coast jazz grooves with Brazilian-flavored tunes and some straight-ahead jazz.
We caught up with Elias over a phone interview and she gave us an exclusive personal story on how she met the legendary cool jazz pioneer just a few years before his untimely death.
The Brasilians - So how did the concept of doing a Chet Baker tribute come to light?
Eliane Elias - When I signed with Concord records, I had a couple of ideas – the first being a Chet Baker tribute and a Brazilian-themed album. They wanted me to do the Baker one first, but I had just released a live instrumental jazz album called Eliane Elias Plays Live, and before that I had done a tribute to Bill Evans, so I thought it would be better to do the Brazilian one first, so we did that one first, which was Light My Fire. Three years later, the time came to make this album, which has been on the works for quite some time. I recorded Bossa Nova Stories, I included a version of “The More I See You,” a song that I had heard a lot with Chet Baker.
I have a great proximity with the material he left us. The first reason is because like him, I sing and play an instrument. There is a difference when you hear an instrumentalist who also sings – the form that he or she presents the material, the way that he or she delivers the tune. Chet’s sound has no affectation, and his phrasing influenced many of our great musicians from the bossa era. It is documented that João Gilberto was very influenced by Chet Baker, and the whole Bossa Nova movement was heavily influenced by cool jazz. I remember Vinicius (de Morais), with whom I worked for three years, he would show me songs by Chet Baker. His golden era, during the 50s, that went all over the world, and it influenced us in Brazil.
Many people associate Chet Baker with jazz songs and ballads, but Chet played and sang a much wider spectrum of material, he did a lot of instrumental things early in his career, he played with such fluidity – the way that he played – he did a lot of uptempo songs, and of course the ballads. When I chose the material, I wanted to look at the larger spectrum of his career and include other things that were part of the music he left us. So, some of the songs are uptempo, other mid tempo – I didn’t shy away from the ballads, especially the ones that were poignant, such as “I Get Along Without You Very Well” or “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” which are tunes that are almost painful, because they have a great melody and the lyrics have a lot to say. At the same time, I also did some straight ahead tunes that show a different side, because it gives a chance to those who know me as a singer to hear me doing actual jazz – pure jazz.
When I set to prepare the material, Chet, in his final eight years, he only worked without drums. There is an interview that he said, “Cool jazz has to be listened to very carefully.” Cool jazz does have that – so I did half the album without drums.
TB - I was wondering about that, actually.
EE - There you go – there is a famous quote of his in which he says, “It takes a great drummer to be better than no drummer at all.” I do have two great drummers on the record, though. Among the musicians who are on the record, (bassist) Marc Johnson actually played with Chet Baker on a live setting, and drummer Victor Lewis also worked with Chet. But Marc and Victor…
TB -Stan Getz, yes?
EE - That is correct. That cool jazz sound on the record comes with the authenticity of having both Marc and Victor playing on it, because they both worked with cool jazz pioneers. We also brought in (trumpeter) Randy Brecker – he played so beautifully in the studio, if you had been there in the studio you would have seen how excited we were that every note he played was so great. On one of the songs, I transcribed Chet’s original line (hums the melody of “That Old Feeling”), and it sounded just as Chet had played it. And of course we couldn’t do this album without including a little bit of our Brazilian sound, so three of the songs in that format. One was “Embraceable You,” which features musicians that I love – Oscar Castro-Neves on guitar, Rafael Barata on drums and Marivaldo dos Santos on percussion, plus Marc Jonson. One arrangement that was interesting was one that came to life when Marc and I were having breakfast, and I was telling him about how jazz influenced bossa – when you hear jazz, you hear that rhythm (mouths a jazzy beat), and in bossa (mouths a down tempo beat) – so there is that synergy. So he said, ‘You should do a song that goes from one beat to another,’ like you just did to me, so that was the genesis of the arrangement for “There Will Never Be Another You.” It’s nice, isn’t it? It starts with a Brazilian beat and then switches to straight ahead – and that at the end, I do a trade between the Brazilian beat and Victor Lewis’ straight-ahead. So the idea came from that – to show how things are connected and how flawless it can be, and how natural it could be.
TB - So how did you decide on how to arrange each tune, I mean, was there some kind of planning or was did it come together more naturally?
EE - When I begin arranging, I begin by trying to get the feel of the songs. I already knew I was going to do some songs without drums because of Chet’s form – he did a lot of stuff like that. For instance, there is a song called “Blue Room” that he did acapella, just with his voice, so I did it only with the accompaniment of Marc’s bass. But as I went along, I thought, ‘this is nice without drums,’ while with others it was different. When I did “Embraceable You” as a bossa, I thought, ‘this song feels right this way.’ I could have made it more Brazilian, but I just felt that I had to mix things up for this one. I am going to Europe next week, and it makes me every exciting, because it’s never boring. We just finished rehearsing and I called the guitar trio – piano, guitar, bass and voice.
TB - Like Jobim said on the documentary House of Tom, you just have to play certain songs, or else the audience will be disappointed – on the film, he says he learned that from Frank Sinatra.
EE - That is true – there are certain songs that if we don’t play – especially when it comes to a performer who has had a long career – some tunes, even if we play shorter versions, we have to play. Even with the guitar trio, I rehearsed “Bananeira,” “Fotografia” – and the cool thing about not having a drummer is that you create much more space, and people can still feel the rhythm, don’t you agree? You feel it in your own way, and people like it. I have done many duet concerts with Marc in Europe, and even without guitar the audience really gets it, and it keeps me on my toes, you see?
TB - So the rhythm section of Johnson and Lewis, which dates from the Getz days – was this a reunion of sorts?
EE - No, we all played together in one of Marc’s albums released on ECM. Victor is such a magical player – during one of the sessions, we heard the recording but we couldn’t hear the hi-hat. We were wondering about that, it was like ‘he played that whole song without it, he is just swinging…’ So I called him and asked him about it and he said, ‘Since I was young I always knew what to do. You don’t have to play everything in every song. You have to play what the song requires.’ (laughs).
TB - Since we are talking tributes – Your husband Marc played with Chet Baker – did you ever have a chance to meet him?
EE - In 1982 I was doing my first-ever gig as a bandleader at a club called Seventh Avenue South with a great group, including Eddie Gomez and Peter Erskine… I was the young sensation in Manhattan, and the place was packed – my first gig. I agreed to play and get paid by the take at the door. As a result, whoever showed and paid admittance, I would get paid from that, because when you're a young player, they don’t know if there is going to be any return, so they don’t want to risk losing money.
Anyway, that was the first gig and it was packed.
Chet Baker came to talk to me he said, ‘I was here for both sets and I heard you play and I really liked it, and I was wondering if you would like to play with me. He had this cap on his head, and he removed it and gave it to me as a gift and left.
He later reached out to me for some gigs, but by then I’d heard about his addiction. But back then he was so presentably dressed and soft-spoken.
So I kept that cap, and when I traveled to Brazil I gave it to my mom – I said, ‘Mom, I got this from Chet Baker, I will leave it here,’ and it is still there…
Eliane Elias is currently on tour, and will be at Birdland from Tuesday, May 28 to Saturday, June 1. Tickets are $ 40 (general admission) - 315 W 44th St in New York, For reservations call (212) 581-3080 or visit www.birdlandjazz.com