Spotlight On…Melissa Stylianou

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 stylianou no regretsMelissa’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.

MelissaShervinImagine 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?).

Fun Fact…
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

Autumn in New York

LeavesAndPumpkinsCollageWe have careened headlong into fall.  Summer was a nonstop flurry of singing and travel, and the past three weeks or so have been such a blur of activity (my CD was officially released, my parents came to visit, DUCHESS took a trip to New Orleans) that the turning leaves and ever-cooler temperatures took me by surprise.  I savor this time of year, and it was a bit jarring to glance at the calendar and realize that we’re rapidly nearing the end of October.  With the exception of drinking a couple of pumpkin spice lattes recently (I know, I know) and the happy donning of my favorite scarves and sweaters, I’ve scarcely noticed that my favorite season is flying by; Thanksgiving will be here before we know it!

Yesterday, the lure of crisp air and clear skies proved to be irresistible and I took a couple of hours to meander through my Brooklyn neighborhood.  With no particular destination in mind, I was free to stop and smile at brightly decorated brownstone stoops, festooned with oddly-shaped gourds and pumpkins of all colors and sizes.  Upon returning home, I made a big pot of roasted butternut squash and apple soup.  It’s a start.

Brooklyn stoops, in full autumn regalia.

Brooklyn stoops, in full autumn regalia.

Still on my fall to-do list?  More only-in-autumn recipes, like this butternut squash strata from my culinary hero, Diana Henry.  A caramel apple from the farmers market, and some apple cider to heat on the stove with a stick of cinnamon, too.  Definitely a trip to Central Park for some quiet reading in the Conservatory Gardens (maybe I’ll pair this excursion with a visit to the MOMA to take in the Matisse exhibit).  A late-afternoon glass of red wine in a cozy bistro, catching up with an old friend.

I know I’m biased—my all-consuming love of New York City is well documented on this blog—but autumn in New York glows with a singular beauty, perhaps borne of the juxtaposition of nature’s splendor and the city’s hustle and bustle.  As the song goes, “it’s good to live it again.”

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September: Looking back, looking ahead

The Great City official CD release party: Birdland, Sunday, October 5 at 6:00 pm!

The Great City official CD release party: Birdland, Sunday, October 5 at 6:00 pm!

What a wild and wonderful month September has been!  The highlights so far have included the thrill of singing with Jeff Goldblum at the Café Carlyle (more on that in a moment), some riotously fun singing with the gals of DUCHESS, and my burgeoning love affair with the ukulele!

The month will end tomorrow with a bang, when The Great City is, at long last, officially released on Anzic Records.  What does this mean, exactly?  Glad you asked!  The album will be available for purchase on iTunes and Amazon, as well as in record stores, if you can find one (a record store, that is).  And there is some wonderful press coverage brewing, which I’ll be posting about here, too.  If you’re around on Sunday, October 5 at 6:00 pm, please get your tickets and join us at Birdland for the CD release party!  

Earlier this month, my friend Alison Wedding, a marvelous singer and songwriter, emailed me to tell me she had recommended me to sing a couple of tunes with her friend Jeff Goldblum at the Café Carlyle.  Yes, that Jeff Goldblum.  Did you know he’s a good jazz pianist who’s held down a steady gig in L.A. for years with his band, The Mildred Snitzer Orchestra?  Needless to say, I jumped at the chance, and as luck would have it, I wound up singing on Jeff’s opening night. The room was packed with press and celebrities: Al Roker and Deborah Roberts, Edward Norton, Fisher Stevens, John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey, Will Friedwald, and Bill Boggs were among the attendees.

Jeff and his band were musical, gracious, and a whole lot of fun.  I brought my mother-in-law as my plus-one, and we sipped champagne at the bar throughout the band’s swinging, laughter-filled set.  About halfway through, Jeff called me to the stage and I sang “Autumn in New York” and “The Great City.”  The New York Times and New York Post had very kind words to say about the evening, and I know I’ll remember it forever. I even got a shoutout from Al Roker on Twitter the next day:

Singing and mugging with the great Jeff Goldblum at the Café Carlyle.

Singing and mugging with the great Jeff Goldblum at the Café Carlyle.

The DUCHESS gals were also quite busy this month.  We kicked off September with the first installment of our 55 Bar Autumn Residency.  There were kazoos, bawdy jokes, ukuleles, and of course, lots of girl-on-girl harmony.   The following week, we were delighted when celebrated author, Wall St. Journal columnist, and all-around bon vivant Will Friedwald invited us to sing at his luau-themed birthday celebration.  Ukes in tow and sporting leis, we sang a custom arrangement by our friend David Maddux of “Little Grass Shack,” which you can check out in the video at the bottom of this post.

October will include my aforementioned CD release at Birdland, as well a trip to New Orleans with DUCHESS for the Boswell Sisters Revival, where we’ll be performing at Snug Harbor and in a revue alongside vocal groups from all over the globe.  Laissez les bons temps rouler!

DUCHESS at the 55 Bar and celebrating at Will Friedwald's Hawaiian-themed birthday extravaganza.

DUCHESS at the 55 Bar and celebrating at Will Friedwald’s Hawaiian-themed birthday extravaganza.

In September, I…
Blogged about: Singer-Friend Kat Gang. The Joy of Eataly

Watched: Boardwalk Empire.  Steve Buscemi in a leading role + 1920s/30s fashion + music by Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks = a show that I will miss terribly (this is the final season).

Read: A Year in the World, by Frances Mayes.  I re-read this book as a (temporary) antidote of sorts to the wanderlust that has been tugging at my psyche in recent weeks.  Mayes’ first-person accounts of art, literature, food and friends in far-flung locales like Portugal, Morocco, Greece, and Scotland (among others) were just what the doctor ordered.  A beautiful literary escape.

Listened to: Film Noir, by Audrey Morris.  A much-respected music friend sent me this CD, claiming it as his favorite vocal album.  Ms. Morris is a Chicago-based singer-pianist whose unsentimental, intimate interpretations of songs from film noir of the 1940s and 50s remind me of Irene Kral and Carmen McRae (two of my all time favorite artists).

Foodie Tuesday: An impromptu jaunt to Italy…er, Eataly

Last Friday was one of those picture-perfect September days in the city.  The skies were clear, the air was crisp, and the foot traffic on 5th Avenue was a beautiful parade of the “glittering crowds…in canyons of steel” that Vernon Duke surely had in mind when he wrote “Autumn in New York.”

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Hallelujah! An unabashed celebration of carbohydrates.

As I left my late-morning voice lesson, I realized that nothing on my to-do list was terribly pressing, and so I could take my time getting back to Brooklyn.  I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to duck into Eataly for a quick lunch and look-around, and was reminded of something that Italians seem to know instinctively: stealing an hour for a delicious meal and a bit of unapologetic leisure is deeply restorative and good for the soul.

Mario Batali’s sprawling, airy monument to all of Italy’s culinary delights can be a little overwhelming, it’s true.  Eataly houses walls of cookbooks and sleek, Italian-designed cookware, bottles of extra virgin olive oil in every imaginable shade of green-gold, a butcher, a fishmonger, a cheese shop, no fewer than seven restaurants plus a Nutella bar (!) and a room dedicated solely to gelato and espresso, so it can be hard to know where to start.

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The essence of Italian cooking: high-quality ingredients, prepared simply so that the flavors sing of themselves.

I strolled slowly, smiling at the innumerable shapes and sizes of pasta that lined Eataly’s shelves.  I marveled, too, at the vast array of honeys from all over Italy (chestnut, acacia, linden, wildflower) and pondered having a lunch of gelato (pistacchio, nocciola, and cioccolato, to be exact) before taking a seat at the bar in Le Verdure, Eataly’s vegetarian restaurant.  I ordered the bruschetta del giorno: toasted country bread topped with goat cheese, fresh figs, and a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar. Wanting something sophisticated but non-alcoholic to drink, I also ordered a blood orange San Pellegrino soda.

I ate slowly, reading a book and people-watching.  At the end of my lunch, I felt that a metaphorical as well as literal hunger had been satisfied.  It’s easy, in our always-frenetic American lives, to pooh-pooh our need (yes, need) for la dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing).  But the truth is, an hour spent savoring a well-prepared meal and enjoying a favorite corner of the city can reinvigorate one’s spirit and even boost productivity.  I left Eataly with a spring in my step and a smile on my face, newly resolved to find more moments of indulgence and relaxation amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

I miss Italy terribly, and can’t wait to go back for an in situ dose of la dolce vita, but in the meantime, it does my heart good to know that Italy-via-Eataly is just a subway ride away.

 

 

Spotlight On…Kat Gang

I knew of Kat Gang long before I ever knew her personally.  I’d dug her work as a thoughtful lyricist and high-flying improviser on The Wishbone Project, and I knew she had wowed throngs of listeners at Birdland as a frequent host of the club’s Sunday night jazz party.  Kat even called me to fill in for her at one of her steady gigs in town when she was (I kid you not) climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

It wasn’t until fairly recently, though, that Kat and I actually met face-to-face.  Our paths finally crossed when we teamed up to sing a duet of “Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night of the Week” at a Sinatra-themed concert that Will Friedwald curated earlier this year.  We not only had a great time singing together, we became good friends, too.  Kat is vivacious and approachable, witty and warm, and she brings all the sparkle of her personality to every song she sings.

Newly returned from a globe-trotting summer—she’s just returned from a jaunt to Iceland, in fact—Kat took some time to answer a few questions about her life as a musical storyteller. Thank you, Kat!

Kat SingingWho or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I have always been a performer.  Ever since I was young, I would put on plays with my sister, turn tables into stages, and sing at the top of my lungs.  I was lucky to be raised in a household with lots of music; my father used to play piano, and I would watch his feet on the pedals.  I could recognize melodies from a very early age.  I had fabulous teachers who supported me and urged me to follow my passion.  One in particular was Louis Curtis, our church choir director—she let me join the choir a year early because I was so eager.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you?  What has been the most challenging?
I have a really good ear.  Therefore, I found that I could get away with less theory work through my innate understanding of harmony.  The technical stuff was always difficult for me; reading music was a painstaking process.  I have always been impatient with the stuff that does not come naturally.  Sometimes your gifts can be a blessing and also a curse!

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be, and why?
I think about this question a lot. There is something important about singing that I can reduce, in essence, to communicating: telling someone a story, [telling someone] your story.  I think I would like to be a translator, someone who is always telling and re-telling stories, and communicating between languages.  How and why people communicate is a fascinating study. Maybe I could learn Italian and live in Tuscany and drink wine and eat pasta and re-tell people’s stories.  That would be awesome.

Imagine that you can hire any musicians (from the past or present) for the gig of a lifetime.  Who is in your “dream band?”
I love Chet Baker, his improvisational lines and sound.  I love Carmen McRae and her boldness and the way she takes her time.  I would love to trade fours with Ella, or try and hold my own with Keith Jarrett as we both make up a song on the spot.  Brad Mehldau’s trio is pretty tight—I can imagine singing with them and being in sonic heaven.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
One of my favorite quotes (I think it is by Woody Allen) is, “80% of life is showing up.”  This is especially true for our profession: the extent to which one must persevere—even on terrible gigs, even when no one is listening—is so extreme.  We do what we love and are therefore guided by some other power.  A club owner told me once, “You have to sing the songs that are connected to your heart.”  Be present, be authentic, that’s about it.  And Bobby McFerrin told me to just “keep singing.”  I’m gonna go with that!

arborscoverWhat are your current musical obsessions?  Who/what is in steady rotation when you listen to music lately?
There’s a singer who I cannot get enough of named Paula Morelenbaum, who evokes the smoothness and intricate harmonies of Brazil.  I also find, recently, that Bill Frisell’s “Ghost Town” can be an antidote to the harshness and chaos of living in New York City.

Fun Fact…
I live downtown and, whenever I head out on the 4/5 train, I buy a 25¢ Blow Pop from the subway candy stand.  It’s a little OCD and a little nod to my sugar addiction!

Kat’s recent album, Dream Your Troubles Away (Arbors Jazz), was released to glowing reviews; the Midwest Record called it “…a classic jazz thrush album from start to finish…what easy sophistication is all about. A stone cold winner.”  She’ll be celebrating the album’s release at Birdland on September 18 at 6:00 pm.  Don’t miss it!  You can also catch Kat every Wednesday night at the Plaza Hotel, singing and swinging in classic Old New York style.

August: Looking back, looking ahead (and a big announcement)

August is a bit of a bittersweet month.  As summer winds to a close, the farmers’ market tomatoes taste ever sweeter and the late afternoon sunlight is even more honeyed.  On a personal note, celebrating my August 22 birthday always reminds me that, in the words of the great Dorothy Parker (who was also born on August 22, incidentally): “Time doth flit; oh shit.”

In these last languid days of August, I’m indulging in some much-needed R&R: this weekend I’ll be practicing my new ukulele in the park (I know! Could there be a more hilariously Brooklyn-esque activity?) and heading to the beach for some sand and surf.

Before we all commence our Labor Day weekend merry-making, though, I want to share a very exciting and happy piece of news with you: The Great City, my debut solo album, is going to be officially released on Anzic Records on September 30!  What’s more, the album is available for preorder on iTunes now!

The Great City CoverAnzic is a fantastic label, based here in New York City, and is home to a slew of wonderful artists, including my DUCHESS cohorts, Amy Cervini and Melissa Stylianou.

Making The Great City was truly a labor of love.  My band brought so much heart and brilliance to the music, and many of you helped to fund the album’s creation during my KickStarter campaign, so this is really a shared celebration.  I’ll be doing a CD release event at Birdland on Sunday, October 5 at 6:00 pm.  I would love to see you there!

In August, I…
Blogged about: DUCHESS on the roadSinger-friend Mary Foster ConklinSaying goodbye to BernieSongs for Supper.

Watched: The final episodes of True Blood.  The finale was so-so (okay, I’m being generous), but I wanted to see how all those campy, supernatural story lines played out…oh, Eric Northman, I’ll miss you.

Read: A Change of Appetite, by Diana Henry.  Henry’s latest tome is dedicated to eating healthily without sacrificing flavor or creativity.  The book is organized by season and I’m particularly eager to delve into the autumn recipes (shawarma chicken with warm chickpea puree and sumac onions, anyone?).

Listened to: Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s iconic duets.  Pure joy; simply some of the most beautiful music ever recorded.

Just for fun, here’s a bonus track from The Great City; it’s our cover of the theme song from HBO’s Brooklyn-centric detective series, Bored to Death.  Remember, you can pre-order the full album today, and I hope to see you at the CD release party on October 5!

Bored to Death – composed by Coconut Records/Jason Schwartzman
Hilary Gardner – vocals
Photography – Walter Briski, Jr.
Piano – Ehud Asherie
Guitar – Randy Napoleon
Bass – Elias Bailey
Drums – Jerome Jennings
Tenor Saxophone – Jason Marshall
Trumpet – Tatum Greenblatt
Hammond C3 Organ – Jon Cowherd

Foodie Tuesday: Songs for Supper

Jazz Musicians & Food

L to R: Duke Ellington, enjoying a sundae; Billie Holiday, cooking; Frank Sinatra, having coffee & a donut in his dressing room.

Musicians tend to be bons vivants, possessing refined palates honed from playing countless gigs at fancy-schmancy shindigs with top-shelf food and drinks.  Lots of musicians are great home cooks, too; maybe there’s a connection between improvising in a band and improvising in the kitchen?  Whatever the explanation may be, I think it’s safe to say that musicians, as a group, love food with a special fervor.  When musicians get together, it’s usually not long before the conversation turns to what we’re eating on the way to the gig, what we’ll be eating at the gig, and where we’ll go to eat after the gig.

Today’s Foodie Tuesday post raises a metaphorical glass to the love affair between musicians and food, although this smattering of food-themed songs doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how many great tunes have been written about eating and drinking.

Sweet Kentucky Ham, written by Dave Frishberg, performed by Rosemary Clooney
Man, did Rosemary Clooney have a way with a lyric or what?  Perhaps more than any other song I can think of, this tune encapsulates what it feels like to be in a lonely hotel, dreaming of the taste of home.  In his signature style, Frishberg has written a wry lyric that is both humorous and heartbreaking.

Eggs and Sausage, written and performed by Tom Waits
I first heard this tune on Waits’ live-in-the-studio recording, Nighthawks at the Diner, when I was about twelve years old.  This tune, in particular, evoked everything that I imagined adulthood held in store for me: late nights, breakfast-for-dinner, and city life.  As it turns out, the adult me does love all of those things.  I also love this clip of a very young Tom Waits on the Mike Douglas show, in which Douglas hilariously introduces Waits as “…a combination poet, jazz singer, and vagrant, with a surprising amount of personal charm.”  For his part, Tom Waits describes himself as “an unemployed service station attendant.”

Frim Fram Sauce, written by Redd Evans & Joe Ricardel, performed by the Nat “King” Cole Trio
I don’t know what “frim fram” sauce is (although autocorrect seems to think it’s “from farm,” so maybe there’s a connection?).  Nor have I ever eaten “ossenfay” or a side of “sha fa fa,” but this is the first song that came to mind when I decided to post about food and music.  Nat Cole was such an incredible musician; he made everything look so effortless, but he was playing a lot of piano and his singing was smooth as silk.   The double-takes between the “two Nats” in this clip are priceless.  For another take on the tune, check out Amy Cervini’s version.

In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening, written by Johnny Mercer & Hoagy Carmichael, performed by Frank Sinatra
This song won an Oscar in 1951; it’s a very silly lyric that is offset by a couple of rather unexpected harmonic shifts.  Only Frank Sinatra could sing about a “weenie bake, steak, and a layer cake” and make it sound swinging and cool.

Hold Tight (Want Some Seafood, Mama), written by Sidney Bechet & Leonard Ware, performed by Fats Waller
The Andrews Sisters had a massive hit with this song, but I’m including Fats Waller’s version here.  His hilarious and playful interpretation makes it clear that this song is, perhaps, not really about food at all.  You be the judge.

Bon appétit, happy listening, and please feel free to share some of your favorite food songs in the comments!