July 31, 2015

By Don Heckman

Singer/songwriter and pianist Ella Leya makes her New York debut at Joe’s Pub on Sunday night.  It’s a rare performance by a gifted artist who should not be missed.

“It’s the voice of Ella Leya that first grabs you,” wrote the Los Angeles Times in reviewing her first album releases. “Simmering with a dark timbre, its velvet surface is occasionally tinged with flashes of sunlight.”

Add to that gently floating rhythms, and the story telling phrases which bring every song she sings vividly to iife.

Ella Leya

Ella Leya

Ella, who was born in Baku, Azerbaijan and emigrated to the U.S. in 1990, eventually reaching the current identity she describes humorously as a “Russian/Californian living in London.”

All of which is true, as well as a creative history which reaches from a career as a well-known Russian jazz singer to more jazz singing in the U.S., followed by a sequence of albums that includes such well reviewed titles as Queen of Night, Secret Lives of Women and Russian Romance., film and television music for Ocean’s Twelve, Dirty, Sexy Money and more.

Her recent album, Russian Romance showcases one of the most irresistibly passionate Russian art song forms, often described as “Russian blues.” The album features combinations of  the lyrical music she has composed to the passionate, often erotic, poetry of some of her favorite Russian poets, including Alexander Pushkin, Anna Akhmatova and others.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Ella’s first novel, The Orphan Sky — which takes place in Communist Baku of the ’70s and ’80s — was described by the New York Journal of Books as “visceral and exotic as any spy novel and as authentically convincing as The Kite Runner.”

Ella Leya’s performance at Joe’s Pub will touch upon the full range of her creative life, including her captivating vocals, songs and piano stylings as well as a brief reading or two from The Orphan Sky.

Her set will also include a special guest artist: Janina Gavankar, star of True Blood and the Mysteries of Laura.

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Ella Leya sings her song “I Wish I Could” (from The Secret Lives of Women) in a video featuring Janina Gavankar.

Books: “The Orphan Sky,” By Ella Leya

March 20, 2015

By Don Heckman

I am delighted to tell her many fans, here at iRoM and across the international musical world, that Ella Leya, Azerbaijani-born Hollywood composer/singer/author, was invited by First Lady Mrs. Michelle Obama to the recent Nowruz reception held at the White House. And the honor was well deserved, acknowledging Ella Leya as one of the most prominent Azeri-Americans for her vital contributions to the cultural heritage of both her native and adoptive

Ella Leya

Ella Leya

Ella Leya has become an effective and influential emissary of Azerbaijani culture in the United States, bringing a growing awareness of her homeland to American audiences. Her life journey has been featured in major USA media and her songs have appeared in movies such as Ocean’s Twelve.

Her debut novel, The Orphan Sky, is the first novel about Azerbaijan to be written and published in the United States.  Among the many accolades it has received, legendary Chicago Tribune journalist Rick Kogan has noted that “this book belongs on the desk of every cultural attaché around the world as a beautiful, poetic introduction to Azerbaijan.”

I first met Ella Leya a decade ago when I interviewed her for a Los Angeles Times story about her intriguing album, Russian Romance, in which she sings songs in the Russian romance style — an expressive, often sentimental art form combining lyrics by well-known Russian poets with Gypsy-tinged, often blues-like melodies and Middle-Eastern rhythms.

And I was immediately convinced that I’d just met a born storyteller — a view that broadened as soon as I heard her other recordings — Queen of Night and Secret Lives of Women, the latter dedicated to history’s most famous and infamous femme fatales: Sappho, Cleopatra, Anne Boleyn, Sarah Bernhardt, Mata Hari, Princess Diana.

But I never anticipated that those impressive story-telling skills would come together in the pages of the semi-autobiographical The Orphan Sky. Nor did I realize that Ella’s rich, extensive music background – as an award- winning classical pianist and a convincing jazz singer/songwriter – would also play a powerful role in the novel’s irresistible tale of love, destiny, and art.

Ella, who now lives in London, explained the creatively symbiotic linkage between words and music in her debut novel in a conversation we had for a story in the Los Angeles Review of Books. “Words,” she told me, “are my musical notes, formed through melody. I follow its rhythm, syncopations, harmonies, dissonances, climaxes until I reach that sacred place of creative freedom where I can pour my heart out on paper.”

Set at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, The Orphan Sky, its story inspired by Azerbaijan’s Legend of Maiden Tower, reveals the ancient soul of 20th century Azerbaijan, chronicling the life of Leila, a young pianist, as she searches for her identity  amid the travails of her beloved country. The tale, which blends a Romeo and Juliet story in a coming of age narrative, also has a strikingly contemporary subtext, revealing the deep historical roots that have impacted Azerbaijan’s role in the troubled complexities of the present day Middle East.

The Orphan Sky has been endorsed by such iconic music and literary personalities as Maxim Vengerov, Quincy Jones, Tracy Chevalier, and praised “as visceral and exotic as any spy novel and as authentically convincing as The Kite Runner.”

It’s no surprise, therefore that The Orphan Sky has already piqued interest from several top film directors considering a film adaptation of this superb contemporary tale.

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To read iRoM posts, reviews and essays by and about Ella Leya click HERE.  Her website is at http://ellaleya.com,

Live Music: YUSUF or CAT STEVENS? at London’s Eventim Apollo

November 10, 2014

By Ella Leya
(iRoM’s European Correspondent)

London, Engand.  Both names illuminated Eventim Apollo, formerly the Hammersmith Apollo, one of the UK’s largest and best-preserved original Art Deco theaters – a venue that played host to many legendary acts of the past – The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Marley. As well as to Steven Demetre Georgiou aka Cat Stevens in December of 1976, just before the free-spirited troubadour grew a long beard, auctioned his guitars, denounced his own songs, and disappeared from the music industry for almost 30 years. All for the sake of his new chosen faith.

He’s back now. Back at Eventim Apollo as an older man who walked cautiously on stage, he turned to his audience and asked: “Who have you come to see? Yusuf or Cat Stevens?”

Cat Stevens

Cat Stevens

“Cat Stevens, of course!” The roar swept through the audience. But unlike the rest of the crowd – Cat Steven’s fans from those crazy ’60s and ’70s – I had no youthful recollections about him. I was there, curious to see both incarnations: the remarkably melodic, gentle and soulful singer-songwriter of “Wild World,” with the lyrics my seventeen year old son can recite by heart; and someone who had supported fatwa, calling for the death of my favorite author and literary hero, Salman Rushdie.

Artists are vulnerable creatures, of course, easily susceptible to sometimes startling changes. That’s what makes them imaginative and expressive. That’s what makes them adopt different images and techniques. Pablo Picasso discarded his creative periods like out of date seasonal fashions. Andy Warhol ran out of prevalent art mediums and kept inventing new ones. George Harrison discovered a sitar, taking the Beatles along on a beautiful West-meets-East artistic journey. And Paul McCartney dismissed twenty years of his pop banality with the symphonic “Standing Stone.”

Steven Demetre Georgiou began his musical quest as a London coffee house bard, then changed his image to a teen pop star and his vowel-thick name to something easier on the ear: Cat Stevens. After contracting tuberculosis and spending over a year recuperating from the illness that had almost taken his life, he emerged with a different sense of perspective, drawn to yoga, meditation, and metaphysics, determined to bring his spiritual revelations to the world of music. A relatively new phenomenon at the time – a folk rock singer-songwriter performing his songs stripped down to bare emotions and minimal instrumentation.

A string of hits followed, with big-hearted lyricism spiced by romantic relationships with Patti D’Arbanville and Carly Simon, his melodies and modulations sublime. With those tunes, intoxicating, mystical, both hippy and intelligent – “Wild World,” “Father and Son,” “Morning Has Broken,” “Moonshadow” – Cat Stevens won the hearts of millions around the globe.



Then came another brush with death when he nearly drowned off the coast of Malibu, California. And he took it as a sign from above to seek the destination for his soul searching. Cat Stevens was no more. Yusuf Islam condemned his music for blasphemy, rejected his armies of loyal fans and disappeared into charity work as a ‘rock star’ of the Muslim community. An immense loss for the world of music and poetry.

In his remarks at the Apollo he referred to his absence from the stage as “taking a short break.” Was he suggesting that his “short break” led to the beginning of a new artistic period?

Hardly. Not with his redundant covers of tunes such as “You Are My Sunshine” and “The Devil Came from Kansas.” Nor with his generic originals “I Was Raised in Babylon” and “Editing Floor Blues”— the latter about the supposedly misreported comments he made following Salman Rashdie’s fatwa.

And if his back catalogue (absent were his most beautiful love songs) generated nostalgic excitement in the crowd, the new material failed to channel the two sides of Yusuf/Cat, instead reflecting the inner confusion of an aging rock star and his convoluted relationship with his art. The audience listened politely and patiently. But when there were occasional cries from fans for old hits, he snapped, “You can wait until the end.”

Standing on the stage at the Apollo against the set of an old western railway station (Oh, so Neil Young), Yusuf/Cat seemed to be extending an olive branch to the U.S. that has had Yusuf Islam on their watch list. And his new release “Tell ‘Em I’m Gone,” filled with blues sensibilities, is clearly a tribute to his teenage musical inspiration: deep south R&B.

But his new material lacks what the audience clearly wanted to hear — the profound lyrics and the memorable melodies of his early career. And timid 66-year-old Yusuf could hardly compete with the memory of the charismatic Cat Stevens – a task that will grow in importance when he encounters the demanding audiences who will greet him during his forthcoming USA tour in December. Telling the crowds to “Wait until the end” to hear his old hits isn’t likely to please his American fans.

Here, There & Everywhere: Micah Altshuler Sings About A La La Dream…

July 31, 2012

By Don Heckman

When iRoM’s London-based, European correspondent Ella Leya told me she’d written a song for her ambitious teen-age son, Micah, I was intrigued.  I knew Ella was a gifted singer/songwriter – her songs have been featured on such films and TV shows as Ocean’s Twelve, PU-239, My Sassy Girl, Dirty Sexy Money, and Samantha Who.  But I didn’t know that musical ambition had arrived in the next generation.

When she sent me a video of Micah doing the song, I was even more intrigued.  I’m not familiar with the music aimed at young teen demographics, and I was surprised by the relatively mature subject matter of the song – until I discovered that today’s young teen music is not about prom nights and puppy love.  And Micah, in his stoic, but charming way, tells the song’s story with exactly the right trace of detached intensity.   Here’s a colorfully atmospheric video of Micah and the song.  Posted on a special day.

Happy birthday Micah…

A Russian/Californian in London: The Royal Ballet Performs “Birthday Offering,” “A Month In The Country” and “Les Noces” at Covent Garden

July 9, 2012

By Ella Leya, iRoM’s European Correspondent

LondonThe rain’s been on and off since April here. Actually mostly on. But surprisingly, no complains on my part. Maybe a little bit, when I see the same perfect 72 degrees and sunshine on the Laguna Beach weather page on my iPhone.Pre-Olympic London is magnificent nonetheless. My favorite Regents Park, St. James, Hyde Park and their numerous smaller siblings on every other corner drown in lush greens, the rose gardens named after every British Princess emit their royal aromas, and the streets decorated with colorful international regalia are all elegance and grandeur.

Royal Opera House Covent Garden

And of course another feast at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, where the past is ever-present. The busts of Rudolph Nureyev and Dame Margot Fonteyn always bring the sense of awe. Especially when I watch the ballets from the stage seats, next to the dancers running on and off the stage. Realizing that the movements, emotions, forms have be carried on through the years.

On Saturday, it was a triple-bill: two shorts – Birthday Offering to the music of Alexander Glazunov and A Month in the Country, music by Frederic Chopin — choreographed by Frederick Ashton, and a modernist piece Les Noces, music and words by Igor Stravinsky, choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska.

All three different but equally mesmerizing.

“Birthday Offering”

Birthday Offering:  incredibly demanding technically, stunning in its refined style, allowing seven ballerinas to demonstrate their individual personas in a series of solos, duets and ensemble. Some forty years ago one of those ballerinas was Fonteyn accompanied by Nureyev. Yesterday the great prima Tamara Rojo danced her last solo before leaving the company, her eyes in tears as she stood at the curtain call in front of a full house, the thundering ovations refusing to let go this amazing ballerina.

“A Month in the Country”

A Month in the Country demanded a different type of technique – acting. An adaptation of Turgenev’s play about love found and love lost with a distinctly Russian nostalgic flavor. Zenaida Yanowsky stole my heart in the role of a bored wife who falls for a much younger man. Her long, powerful and lyrical arms and legs, her facial expressions reminiscent of silent movie females, seemed to recite the poignant lines of Turgenev’s prose (one of my most beloved authors) as poetry.

“Les Noces”

And then came Les Noces. A bizarre, brilliant, piece that could have been a Wassily Kandinsky painting in progress. Purely Russian, transforming a wedding scene into a sacred ritual bending humans into geometrical shapes.  Building up the dynamics and synchronicity to the point where the audience feels as drunk as the characters on stage. Absolutely breathtaking! It could have been thought and constructed only by the Queen of Dance, Branislava Nijinska, the sister of Vaslav, and one of the five choreographers who worked for Sergei Diaghilev’s legendary Ballets Russes.

After the end of the show, as we spilled into the white night of summer London (well, maybe not as white as St. Petersburg’s nights) we joined a festive, hip, happy crowd of Londonders and visitors.  With music pouring out of inviting pubs, restaurants and clubs, sleep wasn’t an option.

Performance photos courtesy of the Royal Ballet. 

Interior photo of  the Royal Opera House by Ella Leya.

A Russian/Californian in London: “Madame Butterfly” by the English National Opera

May 16, 2012

With this post, writer/composer/singer Ella Leya begins her International Review of Music reports on the cultural view from London and beyond.

By Ella Leya

London.  It’s been a few months since I left the gold-and-sapphire paradise of the Southern California Rivera and arrived at the rainy, smoky, dressed-in-tarnished-iron and moldy stone banks of river Thames. A move much desired and anticipated since the first time I crossed the Atlantic Ocean twenty years ago – an emigrant from the then Soviet Union – and landed in… well, Norfolk, Virginia. Neatly cut grass lawns, smiling faces, suburban flare – everything I had never seen before, neither in my hometown Baku, nor during my jazz tenure in Moscow. But not exactly what I had envisioned to be America.

Soon after, I progressed to Chicago, IL., then Laguna Beach, CA, all while missing dear old Europe with its cultural abundance and familiar non-American uncultivated lifestyle. Of course, in the process I failed to notice how American I had become. Indeed, we humans make those kinds of transformations better than lizards – shed our tails at dusk and grow a new one before dawn.

Mine grew so California lavish and Chicago comfy that it instantly got clipped as a part of London’s no-nonsense welcome. A huge, self-absorbed, swarming beehive of people from all over the world – half from Arabia and the other half from Eastern Europe.  Young, ruthless, with strong fangs, indoctrinated with Mark Zuckerberg ambitions and quite often blessed with Maria Sharapova looks. All going about their business amid a nucleus of rigid, proper, Elizabeth the First’s England.

I tried to escape into long desired and missed cultural abundance, but got drowned in a big puddle the moment I stepped foot in the West End. My head spun as I tried to follow a kaleidoscope of theater bills with their repetitious quotes from the same three papers, in which a handful of critics gloated with praise – “the best ever,” “the first time ever,” “triumph of theatrical experience,” “the most innovating,” “the never before seen…”

How in the world could I make a decision? After all, In California, I was accustomed to a schedule of four-great-dances and a couple of concerts packaged for me and delivered to the conveniently nearby Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Drenched and frustrated, I came back to my London flat and began packing my suitcase, ready to depart for the safe enclave of my home in Laguna Beach. But, as I was ready to send Time Out London magazine into the trash, a beautiful picture caught my attention. A woman wrapped in red silks against the red glow of a sunset. Madame Butterfly.   Opera by Puccini, performed by the English National Opera at London’s Coliseum. In English.

What? A Puccini opera in English? Didn’t make sense to me.

The London Coliseum from the Dress Circle

But I went. Last Saturday. And London will never be the same for me.

First of all – the Coliseum, a majestic palace and London’s largest theater.  It rose at the beginning of the 20th century on St. Martin’s Lane, featuring my favorite art deco elements. And it felt like my new home the moment I landed at my seat in the center of the Dress Circle.

Mary Plazas as Cio-Cio San

Then the magic began. With that very image that had spurred my interest. Mary Plazas as Cio-Cio-San, dressed in a traditional kimono, in a slow, eloquent dance with two golden fans, emerged on stage, out of a red glow of sunlight.  A beautiful butterfly, her wings caught in the flames of love, trailing, being wrapped into long red silks of blood. With no music. With lots of air. An introduction to the show and a quick synopsis of Madame Butterfly’s story.

The captain of an American ship, while stationed in Japan, marries a young geisha for convenience. Soon the captain, portrayed effectively by John Fanning, departs for America. For three years Cio-Cio-San longs for his return, bears their son, then gives the child up to be raised in American prosperity by her wretched, disloyal husband and his new lawful American wife. While she commits hara-kiri.

The production was sweepingly cinematic.  Not like on a huge Cinerama screen but in a three-dimensional way, with no sense of stage limitations. And minimalist to the bare bone. With no palaces, forests, and ships cut out of plywood and propped on stage to look fancy. Nothing but the dark, shiny, ascending floorboards of the stage.  A large, sloped mirror ceiling reflecting the characters.  Brilliant light bursting through a rectangular, letter box gap, rivaling the sunset and the sea, with a few moving Japanese screens and flying lanterns. And, of course, gorgeous traditional Japanese costumes detailing every flower in a blossoming spring garden.

But the character who stole my heart was Madame Butterfly’s son, a puppet manipulated by three ascetic figures in black. So tender and expressive were his movements as he picked up the flowers for his mother, rested his head in her lap, stared lovingly at her, that I had tears in my eyes, wishing for my own son to communicate even a small portion of that same tenderness.

Not once during two and a half hours of the show did I question the sincerity of Cio-Cio-San’s love. (Though, once or twice, when her American lover aimed at a high vibrato note, I wondered why she would love him.  But that’s me – not a big fan of the leading tenors.)  Nor did I question Puccini’s tuneful melodrama, in part thanks to the smooth, sophisticated cruising through the score by the ENO Orchestra with charming Oleg Caetani at its helm.

But most of all because of the genius of the late Anthony Minghella, who directed this stunning masterpiece, together with his wife, Hong Kong-born choreographer Carolyn Choa. Unfortunately, it was Anthony Minghella’s only opera, Instead, he’s been known and  hailed internationally as the Oscar-winning director and writer of English Patient and BAFTA-winning The Talented Mr. Ripley, two of the most captivating films of the last fifteen years.

As I was leaving the Coliseum, into the sun and the crowds of people in St. Martin’s Lane, I stopped by the box office and bought tickets for every show of the English National Opera and Ballet for the rest of the season. A good place to start sinking my teeth into big, wondrous London.


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