Jazz Charmer Melissa Stylianou Conveys Intimate, Evocative Stories in Song with Silent Movie
(Published: March 08, 2012)
Jazz Charmer Melissa Stylianou Conveys Intimate, Evocative Stories in Song with "Silent Movie"
The singer's fourth album - to be released in March 2012 by Anzic Records - presents her fresh takes on beloved jazz standards and left-field songs from Johnny Cash to Joanna Newsom, backed by top New York players
"Melissa Stylianou has it all - a gorgeous instrument, superb musicianship and great taste." - pianist Fred Hersch
"Silent Movie" NYC CD Release Concert @ Jazz Standard (116 E. 27th St)
Tuesday, April 3, 7:30 & 9:30 PM, www.jazzstandard.net
Featuring Melissa Stylianou, Jamie Reynolds (piano), Pete McCann (guitar), Gary Wang (bass), Mark Ferber (drums), and special guests Anat Cohen (clarinet & saxophone) & Gene Bertoncini (guitar)
It can be easily forgotten sometimes, but stories - telling them, hearing them - are at the heart of why we make music and are moved by it. Singer Melissa Stylianou feels this deep down, and with her fourth album - Silent Movie, to be released in March 2012 by Anzic Records - she moves closer than ever to the essence of storytelling in song. Stylianou renews standards long beloved in jazz - "Smile," "Moon River," "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" - even as she helps broaden the field by putting a personal spin on songs by James Taylor, Paul Simon, Johnny Cash and Joanna Newsom, accompanied by such top New York players as saxophonist/clarinetist Anat Cohen. Channeling a venerable tradition in jazz, Stylianou also puts her own lyrics to the music of celebrated composers, breathing fresh emotional life into instrumental pieces by Edgar Meyer and Vince Mendoza. And the album's affecting title track is a new Stylianou co-composition that underscores why DownBeat magazine described her as "an original."
Stylianou - a 35-year-old Brooklyn resident initially schooled in acting - has been turning heads since the turn-of-the-century, her skills as a performer honed over a five-year Friday-night residency at the Rex Hotel jazz club in her native Toronto and more recently in a three-years-plus run at the 55 Bar in New York's West Village. She already showed a flair for expanding the jazz songbook with her 2001 album, Bachelorette, which winningly juxtaposed tunes by Thelonious Monk and Fats Waller with the Björk title track and songs by Sting and Tom Waits. Sliding Down, her rhythmically sophisticated 2006 album, featured another rich blend of the classic and the contemporary, with "Them There Eyes" and the Beatles' "Blackbird" set alongside striking new tunes. JazzTimes magazine was suitably impressed: "An exotically sultry `All of You' and a gorgeously dreamy `That Ole Devil Called Love' make her a standards-bearer worth watching. But it is Stylianou's artfully imagined originals, ranging from the down-home zest of `Mary's in the Tub' to the emotional wreckage of the title track, that shift her from engaging to captivating."
With Silent Movie, the music-making becomes less about rhythmic complexity and more about conveying the narrative nuances of a song. Stylianou says: "With my acting background, I've always been drawn initially to songs as these `small stories.' Silent Movie is all about focusing on telling those stories, with fewer solos and more straightforward forms this time. My producer, Oded Lev-Ari, and I worked closely on the arrangements so that we could emphasize the word or phrase that we felt was the crux of the song, the thing that expresses the true meaning of its story. Songs allow us to convey un-sayable truths to each other, so that we can communicate things that we otherwise couldn't."
There are songs on Silent Movie that drew Stylianou into their stories with imagistic lyrical detail, such as how "the freight trains paw at the wild, wild night" in "Swansea" by young avant-folk artist Joanna Newsom. Then there are songs that held nascent allure as instrumental works, like bassist-composer Edgar Meyer's "First Impressions" - which inspired Stylianou to add her open-hearted lyrics and melodic inflections (as she did with another Meyer piece to create the title track to her previous album, Sliding Down). The range and tricky intervals of "First Impressions" make it a challenge to sing, but the music's space appealed to her, as did "its slow, melancholy feel, which always pulls me in," she says. When interpreting one of the most sung songs of all time - Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" - Stylianou made it her own with a slower-than-usual tempo. "I just felt it that way," she explains, "with the character not really believing the sentiment and trying to talk herself into it in a laugh-to-keep-from-crying way."
Although it might seem from her knowing performances that Stylianou grew up with the songs of James Taylor and Paul Simon, their classic singer-songwriter brand of storytelling was actually a recent discovery for her. The same was true of Johnny Cash. "I had a half-formed idea that maybe there wasn't so much depth lyrically to what he did, but I was wrong," she admits. "There is so much vulnerability to `I Still Miss Someone' that it feels very real." An older song that hit especially close to home for Stylianou is the Kern/Hammerstein number "The Folks Who Live on the Hill." She says: "I love singing that song because it's just so well-written and natural to sing, but I also think about me and my husband, as well as his mom and dad. His mom recently passed away, and Jamie and I have had our difficult times. I used to think of the song as just this romantic daydream, but the idea of permanence has a different, more poignant resonance for me now. Some people achieve what feels like romantic permanence, and it's cruelly taken away from them. Others take it for granted and lose it. You have to remember how precious it is."
That brings us to the title track of Silent Movie, which Stylianou co-wrote with pianist Jamie Reynolds, her husband. "It's tough to collaborate with your romantic partner on something like co-writing a song - you have to be strong enough to bare your weaknesses, which is a pretty intense thing in a couple situation," Stylianou says. "In the story of this song, the couple are in a theater to watch a movie, but they're not really hearing what's going on because they're preoccupied by the tension between them - it might as well be a silent movie. We were both going through therapy at the time we wrote the song, so we were on the same page thematically. It was difficult but fruitful: Writing that song paved the way ahead for us, musically and as a couple. I don't hold a lot of hope for the two in the song, but it had a happy ending for us."
The sessions for Silent Movie saw Stylianou settle with the musicians - her core quartet of Reynolds, guitarist Pete McCann, bassist Gary Wang and drummer Rodney Green, plus Anat Cohen on reeds - into Bennett Studios in New Jersey. The singer recalls: "We recorded the day before and day after Thanksgiving, so everyone was in a good mood and very generous musically. Since no one was using the studio over the holiday, we were able to leave our setup and come back after Turkey Day, which was good for me because when I record, I like to make a tiny creative cocoon out of my vocal booth.I had moved in, setting up a side table with a prayer shawl as a tablecloth, a candle and a notebook with my character notes for the songs. I stuck photos to the walls of the booth, including pictures of my holy trinity: Billie, Ella and Sarah. I also had collages of photos and phrases that I used as storytelling inspiration for individual songs. I felt very at home during the sessions. As a producer, Oded had a way of getting what was best for the music from all of us, especially me, without getting in the way of the good stuff we brought with us from having played these tunes many times on gigs.We did very few overdubs, mostly extra percussion tracks and cello parts, and I recorded all my vocals live. The days in the studio were like a dream."
Reflecting on the material, production and interpretations of Silent Movie, Stylianou concludes: "This really is a very personal record for me, in that I think I'm getting closer and closer to being myself in the music."
1. "Smile" (Chaplin/Turner/Parsons)
2. "Something in the Way She Moves" (James Taylor)
3. "Silent Movie" (Jamie Reynolds/Melissa Stylianou)
4. "Onde Ir" (Vanessa da Mata)
5. "Hearts and Bones" (Paul Simon)
6. "Today, I Sing the Blues" (Hammer/Lewis)
7. "Hearing Your Voice" (Vince Mendoza/Melissa Stylianou)
8. "I Still Miss Someone" (Johnny Cash/Roy Cash Jr.)
9. "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" (Kern/Hammerstein II)
10. "First Impressions" (Edgar Meyer/Melissa Stylianou)
11. "Swansea" (Joanna Newsom)
12. "Moon River" (Mancini/Mercer)
Melissa Stylianou, voice
Pete McCann, electric and acoustic guitar; Jamie Reynolds, piano
Gary Wang, bass; Rodney Green, drums
Anat Cohen, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet and clarinet
James Shipp, percussion; Yoed Nir, cello
Produced by Oded Lev-Ari
Recorded Dave Kowalski at Bennett Studios, Englewood, NJ, Mixed by Brian Montgomery
Mastered by Gene Paul
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More Information: http://www.anzicrecords.com
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