On the surface, jazz singer Elena Gilliam’s new recording might seem like long-delayed affirmation for a late bloomer. True, she’s releasing her first recorded issue in a decade, when other singers her age commonly have many more to their names. But just listen to the depth of her performances on the title track and another bittersweet ballad, Stevie Wonder’s “All in Love is Fair,” and you know instantly that singing is no seventh-inning caprice to her. Hear her controlled vibrato, and the hand-rubbed mahogany of the low notes on “My Romance”—earmarks of a singer with her own sound. And when you learn that five of the nine selections here are all first takes, it’s clear that Gilliam released her album at the precise moment she was ready to give it to us.
She sings with unmistakable authority, secure in her abilities and confident in her expressiveness. But Gilliam will be the first to tell you that this recorded statement is a collaboration--chiefly between her and pianist and arranger Michael Le Van, who also produced. He has modeled his trio on those of Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett—slow cooked to perfection through years of intensive play.
A fulltime singer now for some time, Gilliam began working with Le Van at Brix in Long Beach, and they’ve been collaborating steadily for the last three years. Although he’d worked with singers here and there, he was known primarily as a trio pianist before his association with Elena.
While there are no weak links here—in performances, songs and arrangements—the jewel of the program is unquestionably the title tune, Le Van and Bill Montemer’s introspective “Then Another Turns.” It’s an exceptional alignment of singer, song and ensemble. The pianist originally titled the tune “Lament in A Minor,” and performed it as an instrumental at Orange County venues like the now-defunct Steamers in Fullerton. Montemer heard the Le Van Trio and introduced himself, expressing an interest in adding words to some of the originals. “He said he liked the uniqueness of my songs,” Le Van points out. “A lot of people have said they wanted to write lyrics to my songs. Bill’s the one guy who came to my house and actually did the work.” It proved to be Montemer’s last song; he died before the recording session. “I only knew him six months before he passed,” Le Van wistfully notes.
The minor chords lend themselves to melancholy, suggesting that Montemer must have tapped into something deeply personal. threads her way through the text of ennui and regret like an all-seeing medium--slowly turning the cards of the story over, one by one. The probing piano and the understated strength of David Enos’s contrabass embrace her voice and clear her path, allowing ’s vocal flame to smolder and to flare. The performance itself amounts to grand opera from a small space. While “Then Another Turns” wouldn’t sound out of place amid Johnny Mandel’s originals, it would be a fine addition to the book of any A-list singer you might care to name.
“I look for songs with lyrics I can relate to,” Gilliam states. “It might be a great tune but if it doesn’t touch me, I’m not interested. It’s really important to have some experience with the lyrics you’re singing. I want my audience to feel those words.” She heard Stevie Wonder’s heart-rending “All in Love is Fair” in the movie The Way We Were on a date many years ago, and it has remained a personal favorite. The controlled passion she imparts to the tune indicates that “Then Another Turns” is no fluke; Gilliam is a very skilled ballad singer.
Two more sublime ballads are offered, this time with just voice and piano: “My Romance” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Le Van’s arrangements bring out the optimum in her emotional communication. They’re crystalline exchanges in their purity of expression, operating on the dynamic tension of Gilliam’s adjusting intensity and his chordal and harmonic graces.
Though Le Van chose most of the songs, Gilliam suggested the swing treatment to Erroll Garner’s “Misty.” The trio rises joyously to the occasion—through Le Van’s blues-tinged piano, Enos’s nimble pizzicato bass solo, and John Ferraro’s percussive sizzle. Likewise, Gilliam is keenly game for the up-tempo “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise.” Pungent solos from trumpeter Tony Guerrero and tenor saxophonist Dave Moody dance on the fire maintained Bruce Lett’s on-point bass and the controlled combustion of Paul Kreibich’s drums. Catch how after the round of traded fours she rides the tune’s momentum triumphantly. The same rhythm section greases her skillet with groove-laden swing on the Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues.”
“Elena’s greatest strength,” Michael says, “is her flexibility and love of freedom. If I want to be spontaneous, she just goes with it.”
Kreichbich adds: “Elena has a good sense of presentation; she brings me back to the club singers I used to work with. You get that sense with her that you’re playing with another instrument. She’s got that kind of energy where she’s going to make it happen, and she’s going to have fun with it. Her energy just flows through the whole band.”
Orson Welles used to say that the good things in life can’t be rushed. Then Another Turns is proof positive.
- Then Another Turns (5:26)
- Misty (6:51)
- All in Love Is Fair (5:43)
- Softly as in a Morning Sunrise (6:58)
- Backwater Blues (4:32)
- My Romance (5:13)
- Cheek to Cheek (3:39)
- Get out of Town (3:08)
- I'll Be Seeing You (5:09)
- Elena Gilliam, vocals
- Michael Le Van, piano/producer
- David Enos & Bruce Lett, bass
- Paul Kreibich & John Ferraro, drums
- Tony Guerrero, trumpet/flugelhorn
- Dave Moody, saxophone
Elena Gilliam and Michael Le Van: Then Another Turns (2019)
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