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,

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…


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