Melissa Stylianou and I began singing together barely one year ago, when our mutual friend Amy Cervini brought us all together for a “just-for-fun” rehearsal of some Boswell Sisters arrangements. That rehearsal blossomed into a few gigs, and before we knew it, we were DUCHESS, a working trio with a CD in the can (due for an early 2015 release) and a busy performing schedule, including shows along Route 66 and in New Orleans.
It’s been wonderful getting to know Melissa as a person (she is as kindhearted as she is kooky) and just as much fun getting to know her as an artist. Her album Silent Movie knocked me out with its broad scope; the album seamlessly integrates Melissa’s original compositions with songs by Charlie Chaplin, Paul Simon, and others, creating a cohesive, deeply personal narrative. She is a masterful improviser, whether she’s rephrasing a melody or scatting, and her storytelling is nuanced and reflective. And if you find yourself in the audience at an upcoming DUCHESS show, you’ll find that she has quite a way with a kazoo!
Melissa’s new solo CD, No Regrets, will be officially released next week on October 28. Along with a stellar cast of instrumentalists, Melissa recorded the entire album in one day…and every single song was recorded and mixed live, with no overdubs and no “fixes.” There are precious few people who would even attempt such a feat, let alone wind up with an album as beautiful as this one. And so, to tide you over until you can purchase No Regrets next week, Melissa is the subject of this month’s “Spotlight On” feature. Thank you, Melissa!
Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
My parents were, and still are, my fiercest supporters. I was a fairly shy child, and while I enjoyed my violin, guitar, and eventually, voice lessons that they paid for, I didn’t have a longstanding dream of singing in front of people. Something changed in my teens and I began auditioning for lead roles in the school shows—and landing juicy character roles like “Anita” in West Side Story. I went on to a conservatory acting program at Ryerson University, working on Chekhov and Sam Shepard by day, and dipping my toes into the Toronto jazz scene by night. By the time I graduated, I’d fallen in love with singing jazz and walking the tightrope of improvising within the structure of form. I received much of my jazz education on stage in Toronto in my early twenties, and while listening to the city’s incredible wealth of musicians while waiting on tables at The Rex Hotel. I’m on this path because of my parents, my teachers, and my fellow musicians.
In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
The idea of communicating a story came very easily to me, at first. I say that “at first” because my ability to do that has ebbed and flowed over the years. There are times when being in front of an audience with a microphone feels very raw—most often when it’s my own lyric or composition. In those moments, and whenever I’m too wrapped up in my head, I try to recall what one of our acting teachers said the very first year: “Be Here. Now.”
Having come to [singing] without the preparation of a formal music education has been challenging as well, though I’ve worked hard at filling in the blanks in my knowledge of harmony, theory, and improvising. In fact, deepening my studies in jazz is the reason I moved to NYC in 2005, at the tender age of 29!
If you were to choose another profession, what would it be, and why?
My other profession of choice is my current “day gig.” I’m lucky enough to love my day job, because it consists largely of bringing the joy of music to families with young children here in the city, as a Music Together teacher. I also thoroughly enjoy teaching private voice lessons to folks of all ages and abilities.
Imagine that you can hire any musicians (from the past or present) for the gig of a lifetime. Who is in your “dream band?”
Count Basie Orchestra, circa “Ella and Basie.” [Editor's note: YES!!!]
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
I think some of the best advice related to my craft I received from acting teachers. I’m a Libra, and a particularly indecisive one at that, and I learned a lot from being urged to “make strong choices.” Another bit of wisdom comes from Dave Douglas. When I was at the Banff Jazz and Creative Music workshop in 2003, he was talking to us about improvising, and said something to the effect of: “When you’re improvising with another musician, you have three choices: you can go with what they’re doing, you can go in a different direction, or you can do nothing.”
What are your current musical obsessions? Who/what is in steady rotation when you listen to music lately?
I love Brazilian music and one of my favorite artists is Monica Salmaso. My husband Jamie Reynolds (incredible pianist/composer) and I brought a little speaker to the hospital and had her album “Iaia” playing when our son Bayly was born a year and a half ago.
I always have time for a little “Sassy Swings the Tivoli”, “Carmen Sings Monk”, or any of my Ella records, and right about now, we play two albums in rotation: Elizabeth Mitchell’s “Sunny Day,” and Ali Farka Toure’s “Talking Timbuktu.” I’m also getting ready to play some of my favorite standards in support of my new album, working on repertoire for my quintet, and for the super-duper girl-group DUCHESS (maybe you’ve heard of us?).
I love oatmeal. But only if each spoonful has a bit of “interest,” in the form of a nut, chocolate chip, piece of fruit, or crunchy bit of some kind. The same rules do not apply to risotto, for some reason.
Melissa has CD release shows planned in her native Toronto (Nov. 20-22 at the Jazz Bistro) and in NYC (Dec. 2 at the Jazz Standard). You can also catch her with DUCHESS at the 55 Bar on November 6 and 19.