After decades of performing—from her early forays as a blues/folk singer-songwriter in her native Arkansas and Houston during the ‘70s to her deep dive into the music of Brazil and Uruguay to her various excursions into jazz as both pianist and vocalist—Elizabeth Tomboulian has finally stepped forward with her debut as a leader. A wide-ranging collection of tunes reflecting her eclectic tastes in music, Love’s In Need Of Love Today represents Tomboulian’s bluesy roots, her love of bossa nova and jazz along with her enduring belief in the power of music to heal.
“This is my first one as Elizabeth,” she said of her long-overdue debut. “I had recorded with my Latin group, Circo, with wordless vocals, horn unisons and Portuguese. I felt it was time for me to grab the reigns of my creativity and be the decider on a project where I sing songs in English that tell a story.”
Originally conceived as a reaction to the horrific shootings at the Pulse disco in Orlando, Florida in 2016, Love’s In Need Of Love Today is a healing balm for these turbulent times. “I heard that song on the radio after the shooting and immediately thought, ‘This is exactly what we need right now.’” recalled Tomboulian, who cites vocal artists Bobby McFerrin, Rhiannon, Classical soprano Patrice Michaels, Barbara Maier Gustern, and Billy Harper among her many teachers over the years. Her gospel-tinged rendering of that Stevie Wonder classic, replete with strings and uplifting choir, brings home the point in stirring fashion.
Elizabeth’s love of New Orleans music, reflecting her brief stay in the Crescent City in 1980, is evident on a second line re-imagining of the jazzstandard “Exactly Like You,” which features her husband Lee channeling his inner Professor Longhair on piano. Elizabeth adds lyrics to the affecting McCoy Tyner waltz, “For Tomorrow,” which features a potent solo from guest trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. Husband and wife team up on a clever Jackie & Roy-styled mashup of Thelonious Monk’s “Nutty” and the 1933 Broadway musical number “If I Love Again,” a tune later covered by such great singers as Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Dakota Staton and Anita O’Day.
Accompanying herself on piano, Elizabeth delivers an intimate reading of “The Ballad of the Snow Leopard and the Tanqueray Cowboy,” an epic ballad written by Texas poet laureate David R. Rodriguez and later recorded by Lyle Lovett. “That was from my roots,” she explained. “I spent a lot of time in Texas in my youth doing the blues and folk singer-songwriter thing in the vein of Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow.”
More of her roots are represented on a laid back reading of the Bessie Smith blues number “Good Old Wagon,” which has her playing fingerstyle guitar and scatting with earthy abandon. A rapturous solo reading of the jazz standard “I Get Along Without You Very Well” features her penchant for reharmonization as a pianist while showcasing her flawless intonation, clear articulation, natural vibrato and warm, soaring vocal delivery. Her lone original here, the playful “Cheesy,” addresses Elizabeth’s heart for being choosy about relationships.Two other masterful mashups complete this winning debut. “Re: Person I Knew/Time After Time” is a gorgeous marriage of Bill Evans and Cyndi Lauper while the closer adeptly merges Buffalo Springfield’s anthemic “For What It’s Worth” with Joe Zawinul’s 1966 classic for the Cannonball Adderley quintet, “Mercy Mercy Mercy.” Says Elizabeth, “It was really fun to put those two together. And The lyric I wrote to ‘Mercy Mercy Mercy’ kind of crowns the album: ‘We can make a way for every soul to live in peace/hungry children got to eat/everybody’s got to be free/and there is no fear in this whole sphere that love cannot defeat.’ That’s really my purpose for the whole album—to sing and proclaim that love wins.” That kind of affirming statement is one that Elizabeth felt an urgency to make at this point in her career. Her message on Love’s In Need Of Love Today is just what the doctor ordered. — Bill Milkowski
Bill Milkowski is a longtime contributor to DownBeat magazine and the author of “JACO: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius” (Backbeat Books).