[11 February 2008]
The shadow cast across jazz piano by Bill Evans is enormous. The same, of course could be said of Bud Powell or Teddy Wilson. But Evans’s shadow is the most distinctive. While Evans inspired a series of truly original followers who integrated his style into the larger history of jazz piano, he has also inspired a million copycats. His voicings and impressionist harmonic influence stamp the sound of too many who loved his playing.
Now comes the impressive Brazilian-American pianist Eliane Elias and her Something for You, on which she “Sings and Plays Bill Evans”—a full album of Evansiana from a pianist who most certainly stands in his shadow. The inevitable question, then: How well does Elias escape being a copycat?
The odds should be good that Elias remains herself. She is a veteran player, and she comes by her Evans associations not only as a pianist but also as the wife of Evans’s last bass player, Marc Johnson. And because of her bossa-styled vocals and Brazilian approach, she might bring a distinctive spice to her Evans tribute. “Blue and Green”, for example, is played as a very slow samba, and so the familiarity of Evans’s characteristic modal harmonies gets a shot of hip electricity.
On the vocal tracks, of course, Elias sounds reasonably like herself. “Minha” is a Brazilian tune that Evans recorded, and Elias performs it on piano and voice only in a manner even more muted and tremulous than the icon himself. The medley of “But Beautiful/Here’s That Rainy Day” contains no bossa groove, but Elias delivers the first tune with a nicely undersung phrasing, then segues into the second tune as an instrumental. “Here Is Something for You” is a “newly discovered” Evans tune, something that Evans gave to Marc Johnson on a cassette shortly before his death. Elias has written lyrics for it, and she delivers it here in another solo performance (and then ends the album with a blend of that cassette and her vocal chorus). Her singing, not great but certainly pleasant, is an asset to the collection.
Still, the bulk of Something for You is stuck in second gear, not able to pull away from the pack of regular Evans acolytes. On Evans’s signature tune, “Waltz for Debby”, Elias plays with aplomb but never becomes herself. Even the vocal serves mainly to remind us of how superb The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album was. The straight-ahead instrumentals have a harder time. “My Foolish Heart” was recorded here with Johnson playing Scott LaFaro’s bass—the very bass used on the classic Live at the Village Vanguard records—but this only reinforces similarities. On “Solar”, the trio—including a tasty Joey Baron on brushes—is animated, but not necessarily fresh. On this track they sound less like an Evans trio, perhaps, than they do like Keith Jarrett’s Standards group in miniature.
But the bottom line remains this: most of these performances are precisely the kind of highly competent but slightly ho-hum mainstream jazz that could have been recorded at any time in the last 50 years. This is not to say that every performer in jazz is honor-bound to innovate at every turn, but if the bulk of the jazz made in the 1970s and 1980s had sounded like a faded carbon copy of Armstrong’s Hot Five sides, we’d have a right to be critical. So you listen to “But Not for Me” on this disc and you have to wonder whether you wouldn’t be better off listening to Evans himself. The most distinctive thing about Something for You ends up being Elias’s bossa-style vocals on tunes where they’re not expected (“A Sleepin’ Bee”, “Detour Ahead”). And while they distinguish the record in some sense, Elias is not a top-drawer jazz singer like, say, Luciana Souza, or even the pop-ier Diana Krall.
Eliane Elias, it might be noted, started out with classical music and has released classical recordings alongside her jazz and Brazilian music output. Her formidable talent still sounds spread around, even here where she is focused on a single figure in tribute. The more you listen to her play, the more you respect her musicality, but jazz requires more than great technique. Something for You inevitably gets you wondering, “Who are you, Eliane Elias?”
The answer, in 2007, is neither as narrow as “Bill Evans copycat” but nor as expansive as a true jazz identity. Twenty years into a recording career, perhaps we expect more.