Liner notes for Elissa Lala: Touch of Your Voice: New Takes on Chet Baker
One game some people marvel at is how hardcore jazz fans can sit around for hours listening to instrumental recordings and guess who's playing. Guessing vocalists seems obvious. But novice on—lookers seem befuddled that all skilled musicians —whether their instrument be voice or some inanimate external device —use styles, timbre, phrasing, inflection, and even intonation to create a distinctive "voice" that leaves an imprint on the attuned listener.
Elissa Lala's voice leaves a strong imprint on listeners, even after just one listening. In a jazz world where the true vocal legends are mostly either gone or over—the—hill and where most of the new crop is over—hyped, Elissa Lala is the proverbial breath of spring, demonstrating the maturity and classiness of jazz vocal greats.
"My dad was a musician —a trombonist —and all his brothers were musicians and, on my mom's side, there were all natural singers with a natural vibrato, which I also have," recalls Elissa. "The way I started singing, at age five, was by seeing Judy Garland on television. My parents were big Judy Garland fans. I asked my mom, 'What's that thing moving up and down in her throat?' and she said, 'That's a vibrato,' and so I said, 'Oh, okay, I want to do that!'"
Her vocal style, while coming out of the jazz tradition, has been colored by other musics and experiences. First and foremost, her singing is dramatic, likely a product of her upbringing in the ethnically rich Italian/Sicilian immigrant stronghold of South Philadelphia. There, the high drama of grand opera played itself out on radios and record players —and in the everyday lives of its ethnic inhabitants —and intermingled everywhere with Old World folk music and New World jazz, doo—wop, and rock.
"I listened to pop music, like any other teenager, but I was humming 'You Must Believe in Spring,' recorded by Cleo Laine, on the way to school at 15. I'm born that way; I'm born a little bit more on the 'deep' side. I'm serious, and that's who I am inside," reveals Elissa. At that point, she'd already been in show business for a decade. The prodigious Elissa started singing on—stage at age 5 on a local Philadelphia children's television show called Al Alberts Showcase, hosted by an original member of The Four Aces. Though the show was geared to kids, the little girl in the taffeta dress belted out jazz standards five times a week for ten years.
By her teens, Elissa was doing background vocal sessions at Philly's then explosive Sigma Sound Studios, though her bent was still toward jazz. During that time, she met jazz guitarist Johnnie Valentino, also from South Philly and also (as Elissa puts it) "full Italian," who hired her for a gig. Recalls Elissa, "Johnnie walked into my house, and we hit it off." They performed at major venues on the east coast, eventually getting married and moving to Los Angeles.
During the last twenty years in LA, Elissa has performed with Johnnie on the West Coast and in Philly, and her voice has been heard internationally on TV and in films like Dirty Dancin', The World's Greatest Magic Show, and The True Story of Bonnie and Clyde. In addition to two albums of her own, she has written and/or recorded with Blue Note recording artist Pat Martino, Narada Michael Walden, Michel Legrand, Alex Acuņa, Tommy Tedesco, and Bennie Maupin.
With so much experience, it's little wonder why Elissa's singing has such immediacy. From the first note —whether live or on recording —her heartfelt interpretation of lyrics and vocal improvisation are so fresh, moving, and in the moment, that the touch of her voice becomes striking and unforgettable. They make a distinctive imprint on the listener's ear.
But being able to make the right audio imprint is important to Elissa for other reasons, too. Though it's hard to believe when listening to her impeccable pitch, tone, and dynamics, Elissa has struggled with and overcome severe hearing loss casued by high fevers from childhood German measles. A severe bout of tinnitus later in life led to more hearing loss and, eventually, to treatment using digital hearing instruments that she still wears today. The dramatic improvement in her life caused by those devices led her to take up a career in fitting hearing devices.
"I work with hearing impaired children and adults. Doing that work gives me a more balanced life as an artist, so that as an artist I don't become too self—centered. When you're dealing with little children who come in and have no ears," explains Elissa, "that kind of gives you a dose of reality and an appreciation for what you've been given."
For Touch of Your Voice, Elissa chose songs associated with legendary icon of West Coast cool, Chet Baker, whose singing and playing she admires. "His person was all there when he performed. He, most definitely, sang from his heart. He didn't have an incredible 'instrument,' but he sang with such purity and authenticity," says Elissa. She picked a few, more obscure Baker chestnuts, as well as more recent tunes like Elvis Costello's starkly beautiful "Almost Blue," and two well—crafted originals that sound like they're from the Baker songbook. (She wrote "While You're Away" for her father, who died in 2003 and to whom this album is dedicated. )
For the recording, Elissa enlisted pianist Alan Pasqua, bassist Darek Oles, veteran drummer Sherman Ferguson, and (well, of course) guitarist Johnnie Valentino —all musicians whom Elissa says can be "all there" for the music and the music making. "I wanted recording to have a clean and rich sound, so I wanted musicians who could play each note simply and beautifully," adds Elissa. Their thoughtful, tastefully sparing accompaniment leaves a lot of room for Elissa singular style of improvisation, which she patterns after instrumental soloists by taking liberties with time and melody and using lyric bending, melisma, and other creative techniques.
Every track on Touch of Your Voice comes across with the immediacy borne of a listener who has learned to "get it" the first time around. Every note, every phrase, every inflection counts toward the intense feeling conveyed throughout the luxurious, movingly passionate recording. "When I perform, I'm not giving a 'performance.' I want to feel in the moment because, if I feel it, then the people who are listening will feel it, too. That's hard to achieve when you're recording," notes Elissa, "but I think we were able to do it on this CD." See if you don't agree.