Jazz, in all its forms, is an art divinely created by a free spirit! An artist who" feels" from all directions, not just a specific occurrence, thereby evolving that process into an expressive sculpture mounted on sound. Along the way breaking down barriers and rules of which need not apply, for that spirit thrives and creates from within by one’s own manual! This is vocalist and pianist Melani Skybell.
Skybell’s delivery and insight offers a unique exploit into her world of jazz interpretation. Sensual and sultry best illustrates her approach to her first and title spin "Just a Chase Away." From that point on, the hypnotic progression and originality of Skybell’s voice just contains the listener’s awareness. Partnering that with her superb ivory ingenuity and execution, brings a vibrant and lasting new flavor to the menu of jazz.
Melani Skybell is driven, exhilarating, sundry, and exceptionally gifted in every aspect within her craft. She has taken many risks, but not without focus and vision standing beside her. She writes with the influences of the 60’s bossas to the 40’s classic jazz greats. The nuances of her vocal interpretation and performance are those of much study of years gone by. Skybell listens, learns, and creates her most cherished vice, jazz with a driven ecstasy!
As we took time to talk, she spoke of her diverse adventures from the world of classic piano to alternative rock. Skybell communicated her philosophy on the industry to advice for those on the independent scene, and many other avenues surrounding her art. Melani Skybell has intense forethought and a motivation that is unique to her, vital to her success.
Skybell has a sound and a feel for which no adjective can offer justice. The only way is to spin and come into contact with the world of Melani Skybell. For now, go between sets and enjoy the ride.
JazzReview: Let’s go back a few years when you first you were on stage with Innocent Bystander. How did your tenure with that alternative rock band affect your career and the next step in your jazz development?
Melani Skybell: My tenure with Innocent Bystander was a very impressionable period. My gigs in front of large, enthusiastic audiences were like shots of adrenaline. The energy exchange from the listeners, directly back to us, on stage, was so powerful. I learned I had the ability to give and receive joy through my music, in a way I had never before known. I felt a new sense of fearlessness. And, those years gave me the confidence to develop my skills. Where as before my years in a working, successful rock band, I felt jazz was just too tough to tackle. Even though, I loved jazz first as a teen, when I tried to study it, straight out of classical, I felt overwhelmed or not good enough--but as my years with Innocent Bystander developed, I learned that is simply a question of how much passion did I have to further my growth. It was really about letting the passion drive me. This drive made me fearless. My desire to be more expressive just grew larger as I started to leave the rock scene.
JazzReview: How did you find the jazz culture in Texas versus the Boston jazz atmosphere you were so used to? Did it change any aspect of your art?
Melani Skybell: First, from an educational level, the jazz scene in Texas seemed more approachable, or it could be that as the scene in Texas was smaller, I felt I had more support, kind of like a family. However, there’s a big difference in the audiences from San Antonio (my hometown) to Dallas where I’ve established myself. In San Antonio, the audiences seem more respectful and appreciative, like in Boston. In Dallas, it’s often a tough room, with a lot of talking, non-listeners. The true jazz lovers usually listen, but there are always more folks oblivious to what I’m doing, if it’s a club and not a festival stage that’s the tough thing about Dallas. In Boston, most often the listeners seemed appreciative, aware and always supportive. The only aspect it might have changed about my craft is that I felt more compelled to really get good at what I do; regardless of how little the folks are paying attention. I’ve had to learn to get "inside" my music, more often than less.
JazzReview: Let’s go back to your roots one more time and compare for us your life as a classical pianist and what drew you to jazz? Explain also the differences as a performer between the two as well as the similarities.
Melani Skybell: From my life as a classical pianist, I always felt restricted. I wanted to over-interpret sometimes (my teachers told me), or I might over embellish the written notes. That’s what drew me to jazz, upon hearing the freedom of the lines, harmonies, and vocals. The similarities are that they both take great discipline to get technically proficient as a pianist, mostly. And understanding the harmonic structure of the music comes from years of classical work, which helps the jazz musician with reading or hearing what to play or sing. The differences in classical and jazz as a performer are huge. In classical, there is no room for error, every note has to be right, as every dynamic (loud or soft). In jazz, obviously, there’s a vast world of harmonic possibilities. If you don’t play or sing what was intended, it still might sound good, and be completely accepted. Also, there’s so much room to be spontaneous in jazz, which to me, is the beauty of jazz performance. It opens up the mind and allows complete creativity. They both require practice, to get to that freedom. It’s just that the freedom in classical performance is mostly through technique, in my opinion.
JazzReview: Your style is one that is said embraces the classical jazz genre. Illustrate for us what they might mean and how you feel it does.
Melani Skybell: The classical jazz genre simply implies the traditional jazz from the 30’s and 40’s made famous by Ellington, Gershwin, Cole Porter, and other early American Jazz composers. And then the bossas from the early 60’s are my other influences. I like to use the swing and harmonies of the earlier composers and the light Latin fluidness of the Jobim sound. I easily can apply those to my writing, as they were my greatest influences.
JazzReview: Talk a bit about those who share the stage with you. Also go into what makes that machine on stage work. How does one know when the mix of musician’s you have selected is right?
Melani Skybell: I’ve worked with many musicians, over the years and through trial and error, have found the best chemistry with my music. My first priority is always having a bass player that has the right warm tone, perfect time, and is musical one who can play lines between my vocals--and the drummer has to be good with brushes, and not overpowering the mix. The mix is right when all of us are listening to each other and we’re playing as one. They need to be attentive about following my vocal cues, or it doesn’t work. The rhythm section is always my first foundation, then the sax, guitar or trumpet player whom can work and blend with my voice is the other component of the mix.
JazzReview: As an independent, the ride is not an easy trek for an artist. Now that you have four spins out on the shelves with a few in reprints, what would you advise to the new entertainers getting into the business? What barriers might they have in their future that will cause them the most stress?
Melani Skybell: Advice Starting out be willing to play for not a lot of money. If you wait for the better paying gigs, you won’t have much work. Use the gigs as practice to get better at your skill. Every time you’re not paid well, look at it like an opportunity to get paid to practice. Be willing to play for all kinds of events. Money is the biggest barrier, if you do not love what you do, and are doing it just for the money, you&&&ll never feel peaceful. Be resourceful if you want to record without backing. There’s always a way to record, finding the right help. Money is the biggest barrier, if you think you have to have a lot of it, forget it. You have to have the will or desire, and a burning one to keep going.
JazzReview: Let’s be straight, the industry today does not make it easy on the female artist. Tell us about your journey.
Melani Skybell: As an independent artist, it’s hard whether you’re female or male. The toughest part sometimes is carrying my equipment, setting up, expecting to look glamorous, after playing the part of a roadie. In my rock days, I had roadies to lug the equipment, as that was part of the crew. As a jazz artist, the money isn’t always there to hire the help. Or, as a female, you’re expected to be sweet, and when you’re more commanding or simply more business like, it’s not as acceptable as it is for a man. Same old double standards negotiating the gig pay with men requires a tougher demeanor. I don’t like wearing that hat, at all.
JazzReview: I often talk to the "Feel" of the jazz atmosphere, the inner emotions when one performs or experiences the jazz journey. What is yours like as a listener and as a performer, writer, and composer?
Melani Skybell: As a listener and as a performer, the inner emotions are very connected, almost the same. However, as a listener, it’s much easier no stress to be or do anything. There’s a sense of euphoria when performing and I’m completely in the moment, not simply concentrating on performing well--as is the euphoria when listening and letting the music transport me. As a writer and composer, it’s more intellectual, as it’s necessary to create a story and the music. But the emotions enter the mix as the music develops, and I can get the same transported feeling if the music seems to flow. But the interruptions of the intellect pull one out of the moment, as composing is necessary to finish the project.
JazzReview: Let’s get to your current spin Just a Chase Away, a 2007 self release. How did this project come to be? What was the cut selection process like?
Melani Skybell: This project started out of a desire to write and record my own music, after always "noodling" around with bits and pieces of my own writing and only ever recording one of my originals in the previous three CD’s. I started writing each piece for this specific album, with the intention of having an uplifting collection of music, intending to put out my first collection with a positive message. So, the selections were each intended for the album, as I wrote each piece. The three covers were chosen because, again, I loved the message. And the one cover "It Could Happen to You" was chosen because I’ve always loved singing and playing that piece.
JazzReview: The first spin hits you with a sultry, bluesy vocal that reminds me of those days on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. The spin is, of course, the title cut "Just a Chase Away." How did you approach this effort in performance and writing?
Melani Skybell: In writing this cut, the approach started out with wanting to tell a story of feeling overworked, needing more peace and always being a seeker for spiritual answers. The performance developed as the band supported my lyrics with a pulled back the tempo, it immediately worked. It just became clear and obvious, that the groove was perfect at a slow tempo, to better deliver the message.
JazzReview: The intro to one of my favorites in this jewel box is "Got You on My Mind." Again an original, however, the instrumental much more prominent that most other cuts adorned with lyrics Was this what you perceived it to be from birth? Speak also about the saxophonist Pete Brewer’s effort.
Melani Skybell: The intro was definitely how I intended, however the longer instrumental section was not my original intention. I heard how beautiful the guitar sounded and wanted to extend the solos over my changes. My sax player, Pete Brewer, really breathed life into it so I felt he HAD to solo on it. Plus, his sweet lyrical playing and tone was perfect for the message I was conveying.
JazzReview: Since this project is mostly originals can you tell us about the process you go through when writing and entire effort versus rearranging jazz classics?
Melani Skybell: My arrangements of jazz classics are given plenty of time to evolve through the years or months of gigs, and they get much more development through performance, where my originals, don’t get as much time. So often it’s only in rehearsal that I can see what works or need to be changed after I’ve written my tunes. They get a little bit of practice at gigs, but a lot of my gigs are solo, without the band so, not as easy to hear the complete desired sound, without rehearsals. I always start out writing lyrics first, then take that story to the keyboard and develop the song. Often, I have too many lyrics and work at scaling down the words tough, as its two different jobs being a lyricist and a composer.
JazzReview: You’re heated in a sultry, sensual slide as you perform "The First Time I Saw You" which is a great ride. Talk about the string work by Sam Walker, which truly enhances the attitude of this cut.
Melani Skybell: I knew Sam was perfect for this cut as he’s a very seasoned guitarist. The blues is a cinch for him, and the guitar just felt like the perfect instrument for these words. He can play anything, but this was a piece of cake for him, I’m sure.
JazzReview: Looking back is there anything you would have done different on this project?
Melani Skybell: I would have spent more time on my charts before going into the studio, on each cut. I spent way more money than I had planned, simply because I was anxious to get to the studio when I thought a song was ready. Then, I would spend too much time in the studio as I didn’t want to spend any more time in rehearsal or tweaking the writing, but that was the expensive route. It’s hard to be patient to wait for the results and maybe I would have done that differently, thus spent less money. Only regret so much money spent, as I didn’t plan perfectly!
JazzReview: What surprised you after you heard the "Just a Chase Away" first spin?
Melani Skybell: I was surprised how sultry I sounded. That wasn’t my original intention, but I loved it. I also loved the slower tempo and I was surprised how much it relaxed me to listen as it unfolded with the sax solo.
JazzReview: With years of insight and four discs out thus far, describe your growth and the metamorphosis of Melani Skybell.
Melani Skybell: Huge question hard to be brief. As a musician, I’m more patient with myself. As a player and singer, I can appreciate slower tempos, can appreciate more experienced players behind me, and I understand better how to sing behind the beat and not play ahead or on top of the beat. My phrasing has matured as I’ve worked with better players. I definitely have more confidence, as hopefully we all do, as we mature, and I don’t feel I always have to jump through hoops to make everybody happy.
JazzReview: Any events or festivals on your 2008 calendar? What venues would you like to play and why?
Melani Skybell: I would like to play jazz festivals outside of Texas. I’ve played the Dallas and north Texas festivals and hope to continue in ’08. However, I’m hoping to reach new audiences in other markets, and would love to play for other cultures, as my CDs have done well in Japan. Since I’ve got a new distribution deal with a label in Tokyo, I’m working on developing a Tokyo-based tour, or working on bookings in Japanese venues in 2008. I think it would be more exciting to be immersed in a different culture of jazz enthusiasts, as I’ve learned how hungry Asia is for American jazz.
JazzReview: Lets look into the future and what can we expect from you in 2008?
Melani Skybell: Simply to get better as a singer/pianist, maybe reach more people, open more hearts
JazzReview: Let’s look in your personal collection of music and what Melani spins when home during down time
Melani Skybell: A lot of Brazilian artists, Shirley Horn, Diane Reeves, Bill Evans.
JazzReview: Let’s go off the charts a bit and be inventive. As a pianist, you have heard many instrumental piano pieces from some classic innovators. Give me some titles with composers that you would, given the chance, write lyrics for.
Melani Skybell: I haven’t really wanted to write lyrics for favorite instrumentalists. If Chet Baker had instrumentals of his own, then his or maybe Bill Evans but other than that, I just listen without hearing words.