As comforting as your favorite armchair, Elena Gilliam’s voice makes you feel at home. Inspired by the sweet soprano tones of Ella Fitzgerald, the range of sassy Sarah Vaughan and the sultry, rich alto tones of Morgana King, Ms. Gilliam is a unique jazz stylist. Relocating from New Jersey to Southern California, her professional vocal journey began with the Charles Rutherford Jazz Orchestra. “Doc” Rutherford included Elena and her future husband, guitarist George Gilliam, on many live performances and several California jazz festivals. In 1990, Elena recorded as a featured vocalist with the Charles Rutherford Big Band. The album was titled, “Valentine II,” and released on the Discovery Record label, distributed by Capitol Records.
Popular jazz journalist, Bill Kohlhaase, wrote in the Los Angeles Times:
"Vocalist Elena Gilliam adds a deep, airy earnestness to Glen Isaacson’s intricate reworking of 'My Funny Valentine' dubbed, 'Valentine II.'"
That same year, Elena Gilliam became featured vocalist on the album, “Out of the Clouds” for MEA Records. Arranger, producer, guitarist, George Gilliam was smitten by Elena’s voice and sweet personality. She became the front-singer for his band and soon became his wife and life partner. In 2008, Elena recorded “Moments in Time” with her husband’s jazz quartet. However, after the birth of their daughter, Elena Gilliam made a conscious decision to become a stay-at-home mom. But she didn’t exactly stay at home. She worked a day-job at UC Irvine for 30-years. However, her singing career was put ‘on-hold.’
Although Elena Gilliam took a break from entertaining, both Elena and her husband George, used music to heal and inspire wellness. Using her vocal and performance abilities as a catalyst, Elena developed a program providing performance workshops for underserved youth. It was supported by a grant from the Kenneth A. Picerne Foundation. Her gifted husband became a music therapist, founding a program called, “Creative Identity” that, for over two decades, continues to serve adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The demands of running this successful program usurped George Gilliam’s performance time and he encouraged Elena to work with other artists and to reclaim her stage.
From 2016 to 2019, Elena Gilliam returned to grace several prominent stages around Southern California. She performed as part of the KKJZ (88.1 FM radio station supported) Segerstrom Jazz Series at the Argyros Theater in Costa Mesa, CA. She was applauded at the Southern California Jazz & Wine Festival; well-received at the Laguna Beach Art-a-Fair Jazz Series, and the California Jazz Society concert. She triumphed at the Laguna Beach, Tivoli Terrace Summer Jazz Series; graced the Fullerton Library Jazz Concert stage and sang in the Casino San Clemente Jazz Series. Enter talented pianist, producer, arranger, Michael Le Van. Le Van is a classically trained musician with advanced studies at Cal State Fullerton, where he earned his Piano Performance degree. Post-graduation, Michael Le Van immersed himself in jazz techniques, developing a harmonically subtle style and honing his consummate accompanist talents. After recording as a leader with his own trio, “A Different Shade of Blue,” Le Van partnered with vocalist Elena Gilliam. In 2019, Elena and Michael Le Van released their debut album titled, “Then Another Turns.”
Jazz journalist, Kirk Silsbee wrote:
“Some singers do their work despite their accompanists and some work well enough with their accompanists. A few singers are lucky enough to work with accompanists who enrich and enlarge their work; Billie Holiday and Jimmy Rowles, Ruth Price and Gerald Wiggins, Irene Kral and Alan Broadbent come to mind. Add to that short list, Elena Gilliam and Michael Le Van. Their musical symbiosis makes for a joyous synchronicity.”
Jazz journalist, Dee Dee McNeil wrote:
“(Elena Gilliam) has a rich tone enhanced by a range that can soar on tunes like “All in Love Is Fair.” ... Elena offers a powerful performance on this challenging song, but 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 this song. Michael Le Van has a deft touch on the keys, shining in the spotlight, but sensitive and considerate as an accompanist. He and Elena have a musical magic between them. … They fit together naturally, like butter and bread.”
Elena Gilliam and Michael Le Van magnetically draw you into their music with the sincerity and honesty of great storytellers. Elena knows how to vocally sell-the-song and Michael captivates audiences with his piano excellence. Together, they offer a wide range of repertoire and music that makes audiences feel both comfortable and well-entertained.