It's the voice of Ella Leya that first grabs you. Throaty and with a dark timbre, its velvet surface occasionally tinged with flashes of sunlight, it is an instrument perfectly suited for the intimate expressiveness of songs in the Russian romance style.
In fact, the Azerbaijan-born singer's new recording is titled "Russian Romance," and it offers a mesmerizing view of a poetry-based song style that reaches at least to the early 19th century. And like the many composers who have written in the genre -- Alyabyev, Glinka, to Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky -- she has based most of the songs on poetry by such extraordinary writers as Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov and Sergei Esenin.
Called "Russia's blues" by some observers, the romance style comes from more classical roots, but the undercurrents of passion and erotic expressiveness, interspersed with moments of wit, humor and occasional dark deeds, link it not just to the blues but also to Portuguese fado, Spanish flamenco and Argentine tango.
"I remember loving this kind of music when I was growing up in Azerbaijan," says Leya, who is in her early 40s and lives in Laguna Beach with her husband and son. "I learned so many by heart. I had my favorite from when I was 15 years old, from when I was 17, and each was connected to some relationship."
Her original plan was simply to make an album of traditional Russian romances, not her own music. But that quickly changed when the classically trained Leya began to hear melodies as she read one poem after another.
"When I thought about the Pushkin poem that I used in the song 'Far Away,' " she says, "it brought me back to when I was 17. Other poems suggested other melodies. I kept saying to myself, 'I have to stop, I have to stop, it's too much for one CD.' "
But not really. The songs flow from one to the other with an inevitability driven by Leya's capacity to embrace the classic romance style with a melodic imagination inspired by her own multifaceted background.
She immigrated to the United States 14 years ago, initially living in Norfolk, Va., then Chicago, before moving to the Southland in 2002.
She was born Ella Naroditskaya in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, a cosmopolitan city with a population of more than 2 million, and raised in a social setting where, she says, "all the children studied another language and a musical instrument."
Equally significant, Baku is situated in a remarkably diverse cultural position, with Russia to the north, Armenia to the west and Iran to the south.
"I grew up in a place where there was this exotic Muslim culture," Leya says. "The fairy tales I read as a child included Hans Christian Andersen as well as all the Scheherazade stories. But there was all the classical Russian culture, which embraced Mongolian, Polish and Jewish aspects. And then there was the influence of all the French romantic writers -- De Maupassant and Zola and so forth."
A little Soviet coup
There was one other influence that, as it turned out, took precedence over the others: the jazz broadcasts of the Voice of America. Although she has degrees in classical piano, voice and composition from the Baku Conservatory and the Moscow Conservatory, Leya's career before her move to the U.S. was largely devoted to singing jazz.
With Krolls Jazz Orchestra, she toured throughout the Soviet Union, sometimes working as many as 360 concerts a year.
"I sang a full jazz program only singing American jazz classics. Sometimes, when we were in the middle of the tour, a directive would come from Moscow saying that we were not allowed to sing in English. So I'd have to do a 45-minute program singing scat."
Leya's Soviet Union albums were big sellers, although she saw few financial rewards. "One of them sold over 3 million copies," she says with a sardonic laugh. "I earned 15 kopeks."
Her first American album, "Queen of the Night," released in 2001, is an eclectic, emotional tour through Leya's kaleidoscopic past, underscored by the grief associated with the death of her first son Sergey, of leukemia.
"Russian Romance" (released by B-Elite Music) was recorded more than two years ago when she was living in Chicago. A play based on her life is in development with director Loren Rubin, and her song "Kabbalistic Prayer" is in the film "Ocean's 12."
"I always wanted to come to America," Leya says. "That was my dream, but for many years I was refused. But dreams are to be pursued. And my first dream -- to come here -- is now a reality. My next dream, and I still pursue it, is to have my music touch people, to have them listen and respond, to gain credibility as an artist here in America."
On the Web
To hear samples from Ella Leya's "Russian Romance," visit calendarlive.com/Russian.