Interview with vocalist Elissa Lala
Tafuri: I have to say, I really love this record, and I'm pretty hard on vocalists.
Lala: You are, I know, because you've really had only one other on the label: Sheila Jordan.
Tafuri: Yes, Sheila. I'm hard on vocalists, because they either "oversing" the song, or they try to be to "jazzy" or even schlocky, nightclub kind of thing. But your style of singing is really different, because it's kind of dramatic, and it takes a lot of liberties with time and melody. Do you have any sense of what you draw on to give you your distinctive style?
Lala: I always have leaned toward jazz, even as a teenager. I listened to pop music, like any other teenager, but I would be humming Michel Legrand's "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 — and I hate this word — "deep" side. I'm serious, and that's who I am inside. So, I listened to Cleo Laine, Sarah Vaughan, and Billie Holiday, and I always listened to the pop artists of my generation, too, like Paul Simon and Carole King. Also, I've always had the ability to play with the melody of a song. Then, that eventually evolved into my taking liberties during the solo, but I didn't feel that I want to sing bebop. I didn't want my soloing to sound like that; it wasn't natural to me; it wasn't who I was about, in terms of jazz vocals.
Tafuri: When you say "bebop," you mean scat singing?
Lala: Scat singing, yes, or even like Eddie Jefferson. So, I try now not to play that much with the natural melody of a song, but instead try to do my own solo as an instrumentalist would do and try to sing the melody as (say) a saxophonist would play it.
Tafuri: But doing the lyric. In other words, phrasing the melody.
Lala: Doing the song, singing the melody, and taking a soloist would as an instrumentalist with or without words, improvising what I can.
Tafuri: Well, you say that playing with the melody and leaning toward jazz were "natural" to you, but you grew up in a jazz household.
Lala: 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. 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!"
Tafuri: And that was it.
Lala: Yes, that was it. I never had a child's voice. So, that's how I began to sing.
Tafuri: You're basically self-taught, then? Did you ever study voice?
Lala: As a child, I did not study voice; I had lessons with a pianist, and we would go over tunes. Then, in my early twenties, I studied privately more of a classical technique.
Tafuri: And the classical teach was okay with the way you sang, or did they sort of tear it down and make you re-learn how to sing the "classical way"?
Lala: No, they were fine with it.
Tafuri: They didn't want to "re-learn" you, or something like that?
Lala: There were various exercises for strengthening and, the most important things I learned were about breathing and support. That's what I gained mostly from the classical training.
Tafuri: It's funny — and I know that a lot of musicians don't like to be compared to other musicians, and I think you're singular in what you do — but, when I heard your singing for the first time, I was reminded of Morgana King. Do you remember Morgana King?
Lala: Yes, Morgana King.
Tafuri: Mamma Corleone! [Chuckles.]
Lala: Yes, yes, and I have listened to Morgana King, and I think she's wonderful.
Tafuri: The reason I mention her is that she had a very distinctive, trained voice, and she did something very different. She didn't "scat" in the traditional sense, because she used very different syllables for her scatting. She'd sing, like, " zoo-zee zee-za-zee" [imitates a line from her singing] and it was a whole different thing.
Lala: Yeah, it was different.
Tafuri: And what you do is different. It's softer-edged and fewer syllables than traditional scat singing, but it's richer and fuller. And, on this new record, even the interpretations of the arrangements are different. You're doing a lot of tunes that people associate with Chet Baker. What was the inspiration for all of that?
Lala: Chet Baker was an incredible artist. 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 — and from his heart — and I love that. And his trumpet playing was like an angel ... although he wasn't an angel. But I also loved a lot of the material he chose to do. I did a little bit of research, and I found these beautiful ballads that he recorded that were a little bit obscure, that had not been done a lot, and that is how I chose the pieces on the album ... along with a couple of originals that seemed to fit.
Tafuri: And "Almost Blue." I didn't know this, but did Elvis Costello really write "Almost Blue"?
Tafuri: Really? I thought that was an old tune.
Lala: No. No, it's not.
Tafuri: I thought I have — or it feels like I should have — a record of Chet's from the '50s where he's singing that tune. That's interesting. So, there's that tune and the couple you did with Johnnie [Valentino, guitarist and composer, who plays on the album]. What kind of musical interaction or inspiration do you get from being married to a musician?
Lala: Hmm. Wow. It's wonderful, because you have that connection, and you totally understand where each other is coming from. We help each other, because this is not an easy business. It's not easy doing what we do, and the music that we love is not popular music. So, you need that support, you need that encouragement, and principally you need the help of getting charts together. Johnnie has so much inspiration and so many great ideas. Because he's a composer and a guitarist, he hears differently than I do. He can hear the whole finished product the way he wants it to be. I have trouble more in hearing the whole project they way I want it to be. I am more of an "in-the-moment" type of artist. Just put me there, in the moment, and I will be totally there.
Tafuri: You get started, and then you see where it goes.
Lala: Yes, that's how I create.
Tafuri: So, Johnnie's a good complement.
Lala: Absolutely right, because I need all those incredible ideas that he comes up with. Thank God that I've been given the gift of being able to hear the music, and it doesn't ever distract me.
Tafuri: Did you sing in public when you were growing up? Because I remember you saying that you started very early, maybe it in your teens?
Lala: I started singing at age five. I was on-stage at five. There was a local television show for children in Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley, and I sang on that television show. It was called the Al Alberts Show.
Tafuri: Al Alberts.
Lala: Al Alberts, and it's still on-the-air there. I did that as a child from eight to fourteen.
Tafuri: You were a "regular" on there?
Lala: Yes. Every week.
Tafuri: Was it sort of like a Lawrence Welk kind of variety show?
Lala: You could kind of draw that similarity, but it was for children, and it was on every week. I was on every week.
Tafuri: What kind of stuff did you sing?
Lala: I sang mostly adult standards.
Lala: I did pop tunes.
Tafuri: And they had a bad there?
Lala: They had a little band. We did Christmas shows; any holiday we were right there doing our little show.
Tafuri: Do you have any videos of this?
Lala: You know, I don't. I don't have any of it on video. But it was just indispensable experience.
Tafuri: And it was something like 50 weeks-a-year?
Lala: Well, it wasn't every week, but it was all during the fall, winter, and spring, and not in the summer. So, as a result of that experience, I feel very comfortable on stage; it's very natural to me.
Tafuri: When you were growing up, then, and going to school while this was going on, how did you friends and schoolmates react to all this?
Lala: It was a little funny. My schoolmates knew I was on TV, but I didn't get too much flak about that.
Tafuri: And how long have you known Johnnie? When did you meet him?
Lala: I met Johnnie in 1979, so we've known each other a long, long, long time. We'll be married 20 years. We're from the same area, South Philadelphia, and we're both full Italian, and we hit and off, and the rest ? as they say ? is history. We just have a deep, deep love for one another.
Tafuri: Did you meet on a gig or something?
Lala: He needed a singing for ? I don't remember what it was ? a jingle or a job at the time. Another man I had worked for at that time recommended me. Johnnie walked into my house, and we hit it off.
Tafuri: "Love at first sight."
Lala: Well, almost.
Tafuri: You were both "in the moment," I guess, and that gets us back to something you were saying earlier, that Chet Baker's singing was so pure and "in the moment." When I finally really got to hear him sing on records, when Blue Note finally reissued some of his small group stuff from Pacific Jazz without all the strings and production crapola that was added to the studio session, something happened to me. You know how you can hear someone sing a song, a song maybe that you've heard sung before, but then someone else comes along and interprets in such a way that you feel like you're hearing it for the first time? That's the way I felt about a couple of the things that Chet did on that CD. You could tell that he was "in the moment," and you could tell that there was a lot of experience behind it, and that's really the way I feel about some of your interpretations on this recording. There's a lot of "integrity" to what's going on here. Did you ever hear Chet Baker when you were growing up?
Lala: No, I was introduced to him in my early 30s, so I was not influenced by him while growing up. But, again, when I heard him, I didn't think he was an incredible singer, but that didn't matter; it was just pure and "in the moment"; it wasn't a "performance."
Tafuri: Okay, that's a good way to put it.
Lala: 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. I'm more of a live performer rather than a recording artist, because you need to get into that in-the-moment mode when you're recording, and that's hard to do without an audience and with all the studio stuff around ? the headset, getting the right sound, and so on. It's a difficult thing, but I think we were able to do it on this CD.
Tafuri: I mean, there are a lot of other things to think about when you're in the studio that are distracting or can be distracting. How did Alan [Pasqua] end up being on the record?
Lala: I wanted recording to have a clean and rich sound, so I wanted musicians who could play each note simply and beautifully. Johnnie had mentioned Alan, because he's listened a lot to Alan, and he thought that he'd be great for this album. I got together with him; I called him up, and I said, "I know that you're an incredible player, but we have to get together, and I have to meet you." And he said, "Sure. Come on over." We got together, and we played. I knew that he would be in the moment; that was really important for me ? that the people I record with or play with are, again, "right there," not thinking that this is just another gig or this is just another recording session. I mean, he didn't know me from Adam, and I didn't know him, so I had to sense that he would be all there for me. When we did get together, it went fine. I wanted the recording to be simple, and I conveyed that to him, and Alan's playing on the album is just Beauty.
Tafuri: You can sense that "immediacy" there that we were talking about in different terms earlier. There's a lot behind what we're hearing, and what we're hearing is not a "performance." How did the rest of the band come about?
Lala: I wanted a bass player, again, who could just play one note simply and beautifully. I love Charlie Haden, but I knew he would be a little out of my reach. So, I thought of Derek [Oles]. I had heard him perform with Lee Konitz, and I thought, 'This is going to work,' and Derek and Alan had played together before. Again, I had never worked with Derek, but he was "all there" in the studio, and the session came together.
Tafuri: Did you have any rehearsals for this?
Lala: No rehearsals.
Tafuri: Really? Wow!
Lala: In the studio was the first time the band had come together as a unit.
Tafuri: And how about Sherman Ferguson?
Lala: Sherman is a fellow Philadelphian. I love his creativity and, again, his ability to really care. He's not just there for the "whatever"; he's there to make music. I wanted him involved.
Tafuri: And he doesn't overblow on the album.
Tafuri: And why did you pick this particular guitarist?
Lala: "That amazing guitarist?"
Tafuri: So, may I ask you about the tunes a little bit?
Tafuri: Why don't we talk about the originals first? It's really funny but, when I was listening to the CD the first few times and I hadn't really read the album credits, I thought it was a Chet Baker tune when it wasn't. It fits in so well. What was the inspiration for that?
Lala: Actually, I love Charles Lloyd. I wanted to write a tune that was kind of in the style of his recordings, especially of some of the beautiful ballads he has recorded. So, I mentioned that to Johnnie, and he came up with some chord changes. We worked around them with the melody, and I wrote the lyrics, but it actually was inspired by Charles Lloyd.
Tafuri: But it fits in so well. It fits in very beautifully. Again, I had no idea. How about "While You're Away from Me"?
Lala: My dad passed away in January of 2003, and I wanted to write something about his leaving; that is what inspired "While You Are Away."
Tafuri: So, again, Johnnie wrote the music.
Lala: Johnnie wrote the music and the chord changes and, together, we worked on the melody, and then I worked on the lyrics.
Tafuri: A couple of the tunes on the album are known as Chet tunes, like "You Don't Know What Love Is."
Lala: "You Don't Know What Love Is" is a tune I've sung many times, so I know it inside and out. We wanted to do a couple standards in a free style and, because I know that tune inside and out, we picked "You Don't Know What Love Is" as one of them. That's the cut, I guess, that I'm the most proud of. I guess other singers may have done it, but I haven't heard of any other singers doing it freely like we did on the album. I thought it turned out just spectacularly.
Tafuri: It's like the piece is all there, but it's been disassembled in some ways. You're working on each section of it as you go through the form. One can really hear that as they listen to the interpretation, and that way of working out the piece lends itself to the sense of drama that you bring to the piece, too. How about "Forgetful"?
Lala: "Forgetful." Ah, that song is not well known, but Chet did it, and the lyrics of that tune are incredible — incredible lyrics, along with the melody. I've performed that song live, and it just moves people so, so much, because the lyric is so beautiful.
Tafuri: And the lyric has a nice twist to it, where you're made to think that the person singing the piece is forgetting someone, when it's really him who's being forgetful. And "Let's Get Lost"?
Lala: A classic, and classic Chet. Sherman really made it come alive. It's a little bit more upbeat than the rest of the tunes on the album and it's so well known, that we put it in there as a sort of "release." I'm crazy about the way that came out.
Tafuri: Yeah, it's really great! Oh, and I love the tune; it's another one with a really hip lyric. Though it's maybe a little dated in some ways, it still works.
Lala: It works.
Tafuri: And, of course, who couldn't love "I've Never Been in Love Before"?
Lala: That melody is so beautiful, and the lyrics are beautiful. I love the way Derek and I did a little exchange between bass and voice, with no other instruments. I really enjoy taking the solo on that cut; I think that the lyric content and the harmonic structure of the tune just felt so natural to fall into doing an improvised solo without lyrics and, again, a little drama. [Chuckles.] But it's just buoyant.
Tafuri: "This Is Always"? It's another "Chet tune."
Lala: Another beautiful lyric, another beautiful melody — what can I say?
Tafuri: Did this project start off with the concept that you were going to kind of melancholic interpretations, or is that just what it evolved into?
Lala: We recorded more tunes than, of course, are on the CD, and the other tunes that we recorded were a little bit more light-hearted but, then when we listened to the whole thing, we chose the tunes we did because they had a common thread of a little bit more melancholy feel. That's why we ended up with these particular cuts for the CD.
Tafuri: And "You're Mine, You"?
Lala: "You're Mine, You." Wow! Deep, deep.
Tafuri: Well, I guess that I'm wondering by asking about these tunes is that — for all the tunes you could have picked that Chet is associated with — why did you pick these tunes?
Lala: When I choose a tune, I have to love the lyric. When I begin to sing it, it needs to feel right ... in my being; it needs to feel natural to me; it can't be anything that I feel like I'm struggling with, because not every tune is meant for every singer. So, that's a really important part of my process for picking songs: the melody, the harmonic structure, and the lyric.
Tafuri: They have to resonate with you, both figuratively and literally, I suppose. That makes sense, because that sense definitely comes through on the CD.... And Elvis Costello wrote "Almost Blue"?
Lala: Yep, he wrote that. We decided to do that as a free piece, and it turned out really well. We just listened; I think that's the most important in the studio or in live performance, when you're doing a free piece. You have to listen; you can't just play haphazardly. "Oh, we're going to do a free piece; now everybody just play!" You have to listen and, when you're in a studio setting and you may not have visual contact with all the other musicians, it forces you to listen. And, again, no rehearsal.
Tafuri: I think that the way this recording was done is a real testament to the musicianship of the musicians and the integrity of their experience. It really happened.
Lala: Absolutely. There was no going in after and doing overdubs.
Tafuri: Oh, really?
Lala: This was all live.
Tafuri: Oh, and one more, "The Wind."
Lala: "The Wind," recorded by Keith Jarrett.
Tafuri: Is that where you heard it first?
Lala: I heard it first done by Keith Jarrett. I listen more to instrumentalists than to other singers at this point, and I was totally moved by his performance of it. The tune was so beautiful — and it had lyrics — so I chose to do that tune. It's the first one on the album.
Tafuri: Do you sing much in LA?
Lala: I'm doing a performance at the LA County Museum of Art in September. I did something at Catalina Bar and Grill. There are not that many places to play but, at this point in my life, I want to perform at places where people are there to listen.
Tafuri: [Chuckles.] So, that really narrows it down!
Lala: That narrows it down. Of course, we also need a place that has a half-decent piano, so that narrows it down, too. [Laughs.] It's definitely a life-long commitment and a process that I hope will continue to develop into more and more live performances.
Tafuri: It's all about hearing the music and, of course, it's the best to hear it live, in the right space. You know, it just dawns on me while saying this, that you work as an audiologist, don't you?
Tafuri: So, I love the fact that we're talking about "listening" and "hearing" and "paying attention."
Lala: 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, and you're fitting them with bone conductors, so that they can hear through their skull, that kind of gives you a dose of reality and an appreciation for what you've been given.
Tafuri: For the blessings we have.
Lala: It enables me to give and to "put out" in another way. I think it helps my music, and it's definitely helped improve me as a person and rounding me out as an individual.
Tafuri: How did you end up getting into that line of work?
Lala: I got into it because, as a child, I had German measles, and I developed hearing loss from high fevers. It was always in the back of my head that there was this handicap I had, and I became more and more interested in my own hearing problem. I did a little bit of research, then I said, "You know, I'm gonna look into this, because I want to do more with my life than just 'self-indulge.'" [Laughs.]
Tafuri: Well, you'd already done a lot of performing as a kid.
Lala: Exactly. But I needed something to get me a little more out there with people. I began to study, and I do this now on a daily basis. It has become healing to me, because it has helped me with my own psychological acceptance of my own inability to hear high frequencies. That's definitely a part of who I am, so it had to be healed, and it had to be looked into, because it affects my music.
Tafuri: It requires that you really have to listen, too.
Tafuri: And the whole thing we've been talking about, because you really have to pay attention, too. If you have hearing loss like that, you don't get a second chance. So, do you have a degree or a license to do the work that you do?
Lala: I have a license to dispense hearing instruments. I did not go back to school for a full Master's to get my audiology degree. At this point in my life, I didn't want to do that, because it's a little too time-consuming. I went this route, but it does enable me to fit children and adults and to test adults. Still, to get the license was pretty intense. It's pretty intense to get any kind of medical license in California. So, I came home from the library with about fifteen huge books, because I knew I had to pass this license — both written and oral. Johnnie looked at me, and he was like, "Oh, my God!" But I sifted through those books and, somehow, by the grace of God, I knew what I needed to know, and I passed. I know several people who have taken the test several times and didn't pass, but I did very well. And I did well with the oral part, because I'm so used to performing in front of people so that, literally, when I had to go in front of the licensing people, I felt comfortable.
Tafuri: You weren't hung up with the experience of having to get up in front of people when you needed to "perform."