AUG 7, 2019

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 is a popular club singer around the Los Angeles area. She has a rich tone enhanced by a range that can soar on tunes like “All In Love Is Fair” originally composed by Stevie Wonder for Nancy Wilson to sing. Elena offers a powerful performance on this challenging song. In the same breath, she can gently caress a lyric like Michael Le Van’s composition, “Then Another Turns” with words by Bill Montemer. Elena tenderly uses her alto range to deliver Michael’s original composition.

Here is a vocalist who can ‘swing’ with the best of them. Elena shows her strength in the ‘swing’ department on “Misty” with David Enos pumping his bass in a brisk walk. Michael Le Van takes a bright piano solo during this familiar Erroll Garner song. Le Van has a deft touch on the keys, shining in the spotlight, but sensitive and considerate as an accompanist. He and Elena Gilliam have a musical magic between them that is happily captured on this recording. There is trust between these two talented musicians that comes partially from playing together on a consistent basis, for the last three years, and also from mutual respect and musical admiration. They fit together naturally, like butter and bread.

William touches on her Cabaret-side when singing “Cheek to Cheek.” She has one of those full-throated voices that could easily rock a Broadway stage. On this tune, Tony Guerrero makes a solo appearance on his horn. Gilliam takes time to scat through a couple of verses of this song before she re-enters on the bridge. You can tell Elena enjoys the freedom that jazz inspires and she handles scat singing with the same sincere appreciation and innovation that our American-bred music inspires.

“Elena’s greatest strength is her flexibility and love of freedom,” Michael Le Van says. “If I want to be spontaneous, she just goes with it.”

I spoke with Elena about her life and music career recently. She grew up in New Jersey and attended Gannon College in Erie, Pennsylvania. Initially, she thought she’d like to be a teacher. For six years, she lived in Erie until a phone call changed her entire career path.

“My older brother lived out here in Costa Mesa, California. He loved it and he talked me into moving. I didn’t really have any strong ties in Pennsylvania. I was a Spanish major in college. I majored in foreign languages. In Pennsylvania, I found work in Social Services. I was doing social work and helping the migrant workers who came up from Mexico for seasonal work. I helped them with health services and transportation. It was a government run program. As soon as I arrived in California, I got a temp job, at the University of California, Irvine. I started working there and wound up working there thirty-years, doing various jobs. I started as a secretary and then moved into different administrative positions over the years at the School of Medicine on the Irvine Campus. But I really wanted to sing!

‘I was extremely shy when I was a kid. Just very self-conscious. I couldn’t sing around anybody. I just couldn’t do it. I knew that I liked singing. I used to secretly watch ‘Playboy After Dark’ when I was a teenager. That was a show with Hugh Hefner featuring his penthouse party. All of the stars would show up. Oh, it was so swanky. I even remember the theme song. They’d stroll into one room and Ella Fitzgerald was there sitting on the couch, having a drink. Then they’d say; let’s sing a song. They’d be talking and gabbing. The room was full of famous people. I just loved it! I’d watch that show and other late-night, television talk shows like Johnny Carson. I wanted to see all of the shows that had musical guests. In the back of my mind, I secretly thought, maybe I can do this?”

Her new California surroundings seemed to inspire Elena Gilliam to dream big and endeavor to do some of the secret wishes hidden inside her heart. One of the main secrets was her fascination with singing. Perhaps it was in her DNA all the time. After all, her father had performed in a gospel group with his three sisters. The group was known as ‘The George Sisters,’ and based in Oklahoma. For years, they traveled from church to church as special guests.

“Actually, there’s a funny story my grandmother used to tell me. Dad’s mother said she started him on cigarettes, thinking that would help him sing. That’s crazy! Right? When I first heard him sing, I noticed my dad had a deep voice. He’d goof around and sing to me like Arthur Prysock. I knew that he loved music and my mom did too. He and my mom used to go out and see live music, mostly before they had kids. She talked to me about seeing Sarah Vaughan, up close and personal, and listening to Sarah sing in some small club. Surprisingly, my mom didn’t know I sang until she came out to visit me in California. I was such a quiet, private child. Like I said, I was shy. My parents never knew I had that musical interest. After I moved to California, my mom came to visit me and I took her to my big band practice. She was just shocked! She told me she thought, who is this person? Is this my daughter?

“Once I settled into my UC Irvine position, I researched colleges in my area. I discovered Orange Coast College, in Costa Mesa, offered a music program. I signed up for a big band class first and then some vocal classes, taking on as much as I could with a full-time job. I couldn’t believe that they had classes for big band. All you had to do was sign up for the class and you could sing at their concerts. I couldn’t believe my luck! I’ll never forget my knees were shaking the first time I was standing in front of a full room of strangers. The big band leader, Dr. Charles Rutherford, (‘Doc’) became my first mentor. The best part of my time with the big band was when he included me on one of the band’s recordings at Capitol Records. It was an incredible experience. Meantime, I continued attending classes, practicing and learning.

“That’s where I met my husband, George Gilliam. He had just moved here from New Orleans and wound up settling in Santa Ana. He did some work with the big band, trying to get to know some musicians in that area. It just so happened I was performing in a concert that day. I was singing a song, because once you’re in the class, you perform with the band. I got to sing in their main performance space; a huge auditorium. I sang “Good Morning Heartache” and that was the only song I had to sing at the concert that day. There were other vocalists performing too. I just loved singing. But that was my first experience singing in an auditorium packed with people. My husband-to-be came up to me afterwards. He asked me if I was singing with anybody and what I was doing musically. I said no, I wasn’t singing with a group. He called me two months later to join his group. Consequently, I started performing with George.

“At first, we performed jazz, pop and R&B. Then we branched off and just did jazz. I really started my musical career, in fact, my everything with George. He taught me so much, Dee Dee. I was so blessed and so happy to have him as a mentor. I was also so spoiled. He knew how to do everything. He knew how to look for gigs. He had been working since he was thirteen as a guitarist and earned a degree in music before coming to California. George was the one writing the charts, getting the musicians, setting up the PA, finding us gigs; he did everything. Our relationship developed from friends and fellow musicians to something much more. Soon, we got married. As of today, we’ve been married for 32-years.”

George Gilliam, who is a guitar recording artist in his own right, took his position as head-of-household and family provider very seriously. Although the married couple was performing locally and George was also working with various groups in and around Southern California, he had a growing family to support.

“My husband became a music therapist,” Elena explained. “That was very time and energy consuming. When he started his second program in Laguna Beach, his time to perform became very limited. I had also retired from my job at UCI by then. That’s when he encouraged me to do more on my own. I love him for that. He’s always tried to lift me up musically. I found a little local gig in Long Beach at ‘Brix at The Shore.’ It was my first steady gig. George told me; I’ll do it with you until you find somebody else. He even stayed and played with me while I tried-out various people. Some nights, I would have three of us and George would say, don’t pay me. We tried a couple of different people. George said, let’s wait until you find the perfect pianist. That’s when I met Michael Le Van.

“Michael came in one night and did the gig with us. My husband said immediately, I think you can work with this guy. Lo and behold, George let go of that gig after that. Michael and I began to work that Long Beach gig as a duo. He’s such a sensitive musician. We just clicked musically. We seem to have a natural synchrony. Even my husband has said, you know, you two really work well together. And we worked really hard on this latest Cd release.”

Michael Le Van is a classically trained graduate of California State University, Fullerton. He earned his Bachelor Degrees in both Composition and Piano. As a jazz pianist, he’s been richly influenced by listening to master pianists like Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Sonny Clark, Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner. This gifted pianist is joined by some popular southern California musicians including drum masters Paul Kriebich and John Ferraro, David Enos and Bruce Lett on double basses, trumpet master, Tony Guerrero and saxophonist, Dave Moody. For this project, Michael Le Van donned his producer hat. The result is an album of very fine music, featuring the charismatic voice of Elena Gilliam and the beautiful piano talents of Mr.Michael Le Van. Although both artists have recorded in the past, this is their debut recording together.

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