Some actors learn how to sing and occasionally dance so they can land a plumb role on Broadway or another big stage, but this is the story of an actress who decided to turn to singing and we are the lucky ones. Melissa Stylianou is an incredibly gifted jazz vocalist who arrived in New York City from Toronto, Canada in 2005.
Her effortless reading of Sting’s "Tea In The Sahara" (Bachelorette-2001) is elegant, her interpretation of Lennon and McCartney’s "Blackbird" (Sliding Down-2006) enchanting and she reveals a flirtatious side with Bjork’s "Bachelorette."
Longtime companions Artie Roth (bass) and Kim Ratcliffe (guitar) are among the musicians who accompany Stylianou on both CDs. The trio played together during a five-year period, performing gigs in Toronto that often had open sections and elements of free playing. She feels it prepared her for tackling songs such as "Tea In The Sahara" and "Bachelorette."
Roth and Ratcliffe reworked the arrangements for "Blackbird" adding some additional bars to lengthen the melody. "Harmonically, there is a lot to work (while) the melody is very compelling and strong. It totally takes your ear and doesn’t sound like a typical pop song," Stylianou says in describing the approach the ensemble took to the tune. Al Hetherington’s hand-played percussion also accompanies Sylianou’s "Blackbird" vocals.
Stylianou possesses an expansive vocabulary that also includes standards and swing. "I had gone from musical theater as a teenager to listening to jazz and was really into Ella (Fitzgerald), Sarah (Vaughan) and Billie (Holiday). For a short time, I got into some really old stuff, swing, jump and jive. For a while, I had a swing band called Slim’s Lucky Number. I let it go when I discovered that singing tunes about potato salad was not challenging enough for me," she says.
Stylianou is not singing about potato salad or anything else mundane these days and if her sassy reading of "Little Boy Blue" (Bachelorette) is any indication, there will be more than one gentleman feeling the need to loosen his tie during her live performances. "Little Boy Blue" also demonstrates Stylianou’s knack for surrounding herself with equally gifted musicians. Nancy Wilson’s incredible organ chops are the only excuse you need to purchase Bachelorette-but wait there is more. Trumpeter John MacLeod blows a good groove while Kim Ratcliffe’s guitar work is scintillating.
For some young artists moving to New York City, long considered to be one of the bastions for jazz music, can be a cruel eye opening experience. While there are numerous venues in which to perform, there are also many artists vying for those openings. The young Canadian, however, sings the praises of her colleagues for helping to make the adjustment smooth. "The energy of my peers is much different than when I was living in Toronto. There is a very different mentality and it is energetic. "The peer group of singers has been so supportive in helping me to get gigs," she says, also noting that numerous artists have turned up at her performances. She then adds, "It has been a really eye opening and encouraging experience to live here."
January 11th at the International Association For Jazz Education Conference held in New York City, Stylianou performed during one of the artist showcases. It was the second time she had performed at an IAJE event, the first time coming during the 2003 conference held in Toronto. In typical Stylianou fashion, she takes time to express gratitude for the opportunities that come her way and remarks, "Just having my name on the program was a huge, amazing thing because I am new to New York." She allows that this year’s showcase performance opened the door for an April 3 gig at New York’s Birdland jazz club. For the Birdland gig, Jamie Reynolds (piano), Chris Lightcap (bass) and drummer Rodney Green will appear with Stylianou.
Stylianou’s gentle vocals on the Billie Holiday tune "That Old Devil Called Love," evidence the ease she feels with the song, a tune she has been singing since the late nineties.
One gets the sense that her earlier work as a stage actress has helped her to overcome her apprehension in becoming vulnerable with her music. Certainly, in Cole Porter’s "All Of You" (Sliding Down), she lays herself bare before the notes and her phrasing is impeccable. "There is a lot that you can get from Cole Porter tunes. Some of them have a witty element and humor, whereas this one has a rawer, emotional aspect to it. I wanted that feeling. There is an unrequited element there and it appealed to me," she says.
"It was late in the game when I decided to put that song ("All Of Me") on the album. That is because when I performed it in Toronto (during) a gig at the Montreal Bistro, I had such a great time. I played it with the guys who appear on the record and it was a high moment.
"I choose to sing and record songs that have a deep personal connection with my life, that I can feel comfortable with expressing on stage. Original songs (sometimes) are too close to me for me to feel comfortable with right away. That is why I recorded these songs because I have been singing them for years, and it took me that long to become vulnerable with them," she says.
"With the song "Bachelorette," I have a long personal history. It has a very specific personal meaning for me and I found it very easy to get to a certain place singing that song in the studio and on stage. It was very powerful for me. It is something that takes me a long time to get to with my own songs because I am overwhelmed by the insecurity of whether the song itself is good, or whether people are going to understand what I mean in the lyrics. That is where I am right now. Sometimes it is easier for me to personalize someone else’s song. Sometimes it is more difficult to allow yourself to be vulnerable with your own pieces," says Stylianou.
Melissa Stylianou was 20-years old when she made the transition from musical theater to singing jazz standards. "I began listening to a lot of older singers," she says.
Stylianou wrote her first piece in 1999 when a theater friend was staging a production of David Hare’s The Blue Room and commissioned her to write the incidental music for the production, as well as the melody for a song one of the characters sang.
The title track from Stylianou’s current CD Sliding Down, an Edgar Meyer’s tune, ends with the words, "Or will this moment be my keepsake? / (I will always remember)." There are many moments to remember from Stylianou’s music and my conversation with her. I suggest you check out her website and catch her performance because there will come a time when tickets to her concerts will be hard to get.