Eliane Elias is one of those musicians who have tended to slip through the critical net and therefore she receives less than her share of accolades. She is too much of a populist for the jazz intelligentsia, not “ethnic” enough for the Latinophiles, too smooth for the dancefloor and too classically orthodox for the soul-jazz crowd. Not that she should worry — her gentle melange of styles has always found a ready audience. It does seem a shame though that her qualities as a player are somewhat obscured by her penchant for hybrid, if high class, Easy Listening. One, but only one among many, of the pleasures of this new compilation is in firmly establishing that the foundation of her tasteful blend of jazz-funk and Brazilian melodies is a precise and increasingly distinctive post-bop piano technique.
Blue Note have delivered a “History of” rather than a “Best of” — largely because Elias is, I think, coming more into her own with each new release — with the result that her finest work tends to be her most recent. Therefore, this crop of compositions is best approached as a useful retrospective exercise. Consequently, it is, unusually for such endeavours, not really the best place to begin an encounter with the Brazilian-born New Yorker. I would recommend that newcomers head for the more consistent Paulistana or Everything I Love sets. This is particularly the case for straight-ahead jazz folk. The material that this selection concentrates on is more tailored to devotees of Latin jazz who also have a taste for the smooth-and-fused. They can now follow the particular line of development of one of those genres’ more gifted practitioners. Chronological order and some better liner notes would have helped in this — but this is a representative portrait of an non-confrontational, but at times exquisite, talent.
A couple of caveats. Firstly, and obviously, don’t expect anything jagged, jarring or raucous. Secondly, and perhaps more worryingly, Elias sings — at some length. Well she “be-be-be-do-be-di-doos” — at some length. She has a warm tone and expert phrasing but to many people one such example of vocalese per album is more than plenty. As nearly two-thirds of The Best Of features these warblings, some will have left the room screaming by about track eight. However, if you can cope with similar tendencies in the work of George Benson and Tania Maria — both close cousins of the Elias vocal tactic — then you will cope easily with these performances. For my money, the most impressive pieces are nearly always the purely instrumental ones, although after a couple of listens the overall musicality wins out over even the dooby-doobiest of dooby-doo ridden songs.
A rather generous four such samples, from her 1991 outing A Long Story, set the show on the road. Ignore “Just Kidding” — too whimsical by about a mile — and enjoy the Dave Grusin/Lee Ritenour stylings of the title track, the Tania-esque “Back in Time” and the delightful “Life Goes On”. These are designed for an audience somewhere between Dinner Jazz smoothies and aging jazzfunkers. The latter group should at this point skip to the last two items on the CD. There they will find, and undoubtedly relish, a badly dated synthesiser/piano sound which bears the traces (or scars) of her time with fusion outfit Straight Ahead. The rest of us will take a more linear route and will be rewarded with two lively contributions from The Three Americas. “An Up Dawn” and “The Time Is Now”, with samba and montuno rhythms respectively, show Elias moving away from the purely derivative and exploring more fully her South American heritage. On both, Elias’ solo work sparkles and the small group dynamics work well, with flautist Dave Valentin adding an extra ingredient.
From there we move gracefully on to the jazzier compositions. “Paulistana” and “So in Love” are expertly arranged and feature some sublime piano — pretty but not too frilly. The trio and duo formats seem to suit Elias, who interacts well with the likes of bassist Eddie Gomez and genius-drummer Jack De Johnette. For those who would scoff at Elias’ credentials — heavyweights like those two don’t just sit in with anybody. She is at her best on these slower, casually elegant numbers. Her classical poise is wrapped in subtle Brazilian flavours, producing the aural equivalent of a leisurely meal at a very high class restaurant. If Erroll Garner had been born in Rio, he might make music like this.
The Garner ambience is also present in the collection’s two crowning moments, although one of them is actually a tribute to the considerably edgier Bud Powell. Both are from 1999’s Everything I Love session. “That’s All It Was” is another candlelit treat — but with greater gravitas and introspection than that mode of playing often allows. The homage (“Bowing to Bud”) is a joyous example of contemporary bop. I defy even the most Leninist of tastemakers to ostracise Elias after hearing both her empathy and “mastery” of form as she re-works Powell’s idiosyncrasies into her own more sensuous aesthetic. The words confidence and maturity spring to mind.
Elias, when she is discussed at all, is often regarded, almost literally, as a “pale” version of Tania Maria. As stated earlier, there are connections. However there is a very different attitude to tempo and mood between the two. Though Elias lacks the fire of her compatriot she has, I think, a greater affinity with at least the “cooler” traditions of jazz piano — which evens up the score. They are, in fact, very different talents. Elias is probably destined to remain within the lucrative confines of Radio Smooth but is more imaginative and creative a figure than that suggests. If she reins back the singing and continues to explore the possibilities of the small group setting, she will surprise a few figures in the jazz world over the coming years. Even if she sticks with the proven formula, she will still make some excellent music.