A Fiercely Talented Improviser
After receiving her master’s degree in music at Loyola University in 2004, Belgian-born cellist, singer, composer, and improviser Helen Gillet has continued to flourish in New Orleans. Since the onset, Gillet has created a DIY pathway as an independent musical artist who has collaborated with locals such as James Singleton, Jonathan Freilich, Tim Green, Doug Garrison, Aurora Nealand and Leyla McCalla, as well as leading Wazozo and Tephra Sound. A fiercely talented improviser, Gillet utilizes a compelling array of loops and gadgets to create layers of sound on the spot combining her skills into a cohesive and compelling musical narrative. Her current effort Helkiase is her latest in a series of house concert captures. Helkiase is an intimate solo performance that to these ears at least represents Helen Gillet at the peak of her powers in their distilled essence.
The opening selection, “Quande Je Marche” by French singer Camille, has long been one of Gillet’s showstoppers. Initially, Gillet used her incredibly dynamic vocal range to achieve the maximum impact of the powerful, wonderful lyrics. Here, it begins with a stunning Indian raga introduction inspired by her Wisconsin instructor Nancy Lesh Kulkarni (who inspired Gillet to further explore the art of the improvisers). The trance-like opening gradually morphs and unfolds into a more nuanced interpretation that has a decidedly more meditative, contemplative tone.
A highlight, “Slow Drag Pavageau” was inspired by a makeshift bass exhibited in the New Orleans Jazz Museum by traditional jazz bassist Alcide “Slow Drag” Pavageau. One of Gillet’s most beautiful and deeply moving ballads, it tells the story of the struggle of the musician’s life.
Another cover of note is PJ Harvey’s confessional portrait “Angeline,” rendered by Gillet with utmost dignity and grace.
As the back cover alludes to, Helkiase was a Belgian medicine made with mercuric chloride that was effectively used to treat both the skin and ulcers, but banned before WWII due to the serious side effects of mercury poisoning. The title track includes snippets of General De Gaulle in a peculiar time-warped experimental episode.
Helkiase is a strong effort that coincides with a great step forward in her career, for Helen Gillet has now reached a point where she no longer has to deal with musical side-hustles and is completely committed to her art. This has allowed her to tour the country and the world, and to engage in ambitious collaborations that are certain to bear fruit in the near future.