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The timeworn adage “the show must go on” was Eliane Elias’ watchword at her September 15th concert at Manhattan’s City Winery in support of Mirror Mirror (Candid), a new release on which she performs an exhilarating suite of piano duets with Chick Corea and Chucho Valdés.
“Two weeks ago, I canceled the date,” Elias says the morning after, from her Long Island home. During the summer, she explains, she’d ruptured the Lisfranc ligament in her right foot, breaking all seven bones that it supports, necessitating a seven-hour surgery that entailed bone grafts and other implantations, followed by a protracted recovery period.
“The doctor told me I wasn’t ready to press the pedal or keep my foot unelevated,” Elias continues. “But I didn’t sleep the whole night after I’d canceled, and in the morning I called my agent and said: ‘I’m not ill. I’m recovering from an accident. I’ll play without a pedal if I have to. I can use my legato by hand.’ I was supposed to go onstage with a scooter, but that felt weird. I said, ‘Guys, help me; let’s do the crutches.’ And it worked.”
Some 20 minutes in, after Elias sang the iconic lyric of “Chega de Saudade,” she and her “guys” — bassist (and spouse) Marc Johnson and fellow Brazilians Rubens de la Corte on guitar and Rafael Barrata on drums — switched from gentle samba flow to an up-tempo, swinging section where she showcased her efflorescent chops with long, fluidly executed melodic lines. After the final note, Elias smiled gamely as she rubbed her foot. “I forgot I wasn’t supposed to hit the pedal — that hurt,” she told the crowd.
Buying time, Elias instructed the house engineer to run a seven-minute video clip of her and Corea interacting on the late maestro’s “Armando’s Rhumba,” which leads off the CD edition of Mirror Mirror. Then she returned to the piano to caress the haunting melody of Armando Manzanero’s boléro “Esta Tarde Vi Llover,” which she explores with Valdés on the second CD track.
Throughout Mirror Mirror, Elias functions fully as a peer to Corea and Valdés, as she does with Herbie Hancock on several no-holds-barred improvisations on the 1995 recording, Solos and Duos (Blue Note). Her bold, unfettered pianistic derring-do may surprise fans of the highly curated, vocal-oriented sessions that comprise much of Elias’ 21st-century discography, though not if they’ve heard dates like 2012’s Swept Away (ECM), a nuanced Elias-Johnson duo, or 2008’s Something for You (Blue Note), on which she interprets 17 songs associated with Bill Evans, an influence since childhood.
Elias traces her sure-footedness in the duo space to studies during formative São Paulo years with Amilton Godoy, who led Brazil’s pathbreaking Zimbo Trio. “We played a lot of piano duets, accompanying one another, which taught me to tune into the other pianist,” she says. “With Chick and Chucho we were improvising and creating — we kept the form of the tunes, but traveled into different paths within the form.”
As a ’70s teenager, Elias, already a pro, “liked the musical diversity on Chick’s projects — playing straightahead acoustic, keyboards with electric groups, solo piano works; I also liked his compositions.” Corea, who died in February, heard an 18-year-old Elias in Brazil and they remained in touch after she moved to New York in the early ’80s, when she joined the popular Steps Ahead band before embarking on a leader career mid-decade. They periodically discussed a duo project until schedules aligned in late 2018.
“Our affinity was obvious, harmonically, rhythmically — we were completely on the same wavelength, talking the same language,” Elias says. “We didn’t even count off the tunes; we sat down and started playing. There are no other takes.”
Similar chemistry marks the Elias-Valdés connection on the three iconic, Elias-selected Latin hits, which entered her DNA early on through her mother’s eclectic record collection. “He’s got a beautiful rhythm and groove, he’s very sensitive, with a lot of heart, and lots of chops,” she says. “He can fly on the piano, and he chose just the right moments to do that.
“To me, the title reflects the image of two pianos mirroring each other, the music coming from one to the other and bouncing back — the interchange we had.” — Ted Panken