Several years ago, I met a young vocalist from Toronto who was pursuing a concentration in vocal jazz. From the moment I heard her open her mouth, that golden tone, natural feel and wonderfully expressive phrasing and musicality set her apart as something special.
Since then, Melissa Stylianou has made acclaimed recordings and entrenched herself in the New York jazz scene. She’s been touring the world as part of the award-winning vocal ensemble Duchess. Now, she has a new album called Dream Dancing with guitarist Gene Bertoncini and bassist Ike Sturm.
Stylianou joined us to talk about her new album.
I know you’ve been working with Gene Bertoncini for a while. When did you start working together, and when did you decide to make this record?
I’m pretty sure we met around 2020, maybe a bit earlier. The very first thing we did, I just said, “Hi Mr. Bertoncini, Ike Sturm says I have to come over and pick a tune to play with you. Do you know My One and Only Love?” He didn’t even say anything, he just started playing. That arrangement is exactly what you hear on the record. The chemistry was there from the beginning. Ike, Gene and I have been playing a lot in New York and even [beyond], and we thought you know, we have to get into the studio and document this. That was in August of 2018, and a lot of things happened in between, but we got it out into the world and we’re all really proud.
Your work with Duchess involves that lush harmoniousness of multiple vocals, and it’s got more instrumentation. This trio is very pared down and a little more naked in its sound. What does that do for you as an artist?
It makes me feel right at home, honestly. When I was in Toronto, I was playing with Kim Ratcliffe and Artie Roth every Friday during cocktail hour at the Rex for five and a half years. I love that space and that vulnerability, and the room for improvisation and for anything to happen. I fell in love with that modality a long time ago. And then playing with Gene is like nothing else in the world. He is a singular artist and person. One of the things that makes it so wonderful and fresh is that he throws most of the curveballs, but Ike and I are partners in it as well. That’s what keeps it so fresh and exciting. But it’s always with the lyric and the message of the song in mind. So, I found a kindred spirit in both of these people.
It’s so wonderful to find instrumentalists who embrace a lyric the same way that vocalists do. Would you say that’s one of the things you’ve learned from Gene? What else have you learned from him?
I was primed to work with Gene by working with Ike. I worked with him almost every Sunday when he was the music director for the Jazz Ministry at [Saint Peter’s Church in Manhattan]. He would write a new setting of a song every week, and he would always put in place on piece of the service where he would give me the text and tell me to pick a tonality, pick a meter and go. I found it frustrating for a while. I was used to jumping in and improvising, but that was a whole lot of freedom. Once I started doing that and getting over my ego and just jumping in and doing it, I found that I loved it. It allowed me to exercise the muscles that have come in really handy while working with Gene, because it’s not that dissimilar. Being in the moment, really in the moment, is absolutely essential when you play with anyone, but there are some people like Gene Bertoncini that demand it because he is so in the moment. He wrote a song called For Chet on the album, and he said that what he learned from working with Chet Baker was that he never played a note he didn’t need. That’s something he strives to do. In order to do that, you have to be reacting in real time and honest with where you are in that moment on that day. It’s been really wonderful to be reminded of how beautiful music can be when you’re really in the moment.
This interview has been edited and condensed.