Credit: Shervin Lainez
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Sure-footed swing, sweet-toned harmony and ever-insouciant charm are embodied in the new jazz vocal trio Duchess, featuring notable New York singers Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner and Melissa Stylianou. Blending the classic and the contemporary DUCHESS has quickly earned a reputation for beautiful singing and big fun at the group’s shows of “girl-on-girl harmony,” as the three so saucily put it. The New York-based threesome made its debut on record with the eponymous Duchess, released by Anzic Records in February 2015. The album channels the 1930s inspiration of the virtuosic Boswell Sisters into a wonderfully entertaining package.
A vocal trio blending the classic and the contemporary, Duchess – Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner and Melissa Stylianou – has quickly earned a reputation for beautiful singing and big fun at the group’s shows of “girl-on-girl harmony,” as the three so saucily put it. The New York-based threesome makes its debut on record with the eponymous Duchess, for release by Anzic Records on Feb. 17, 2015. The album channels the 1930s inspiration of the virtuosic Boswell Sisters into a wonderfully entertaining package – one that brims with sure-footed swing, sweet-toned harmony and ever-insouciant charm. Produced by arranger Oded Lev-Ari, who helmed previous acclaimed Anzic releases by Cervini and Stylianou, Duchess pairs the vocal trio with an ace New York band: pianist Michael Cabe, bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Matt Wilson, plus saxophonist Jeff Lederer and guitarist Jesse Lewis. The songs of Duchess range from the Peggy Lee number “I Love Being Here With You” and Johnny Mercer’s “P.S. I Love You” to new twists on “Que Sera, Sera” and the indelible standard “I’ll Be Seeing You.” There’s a playful Gershwin rarity with “Blah, Blah, Blah” and a direct Boswell Sisters homage with their arrangement of “Heebie Jeebies.” And there are solo spots for each of the Duchess ladies with “My Brooklyn Love Song” (Hilary), “A Doodlin’ Song” (Amy) and “Humming to Myself” (Melissa). Whether on stage or on record, the women of Duchess make for a fizzing cocktail of vocal jazz.
As the historic muses for the Duchess sound, the Boswell Sisters were a trio from New Orleans whose pioneering close-harmony records for Brunswick in the Thirties are a prize in the jazz canon. “The Boswell Sisters were such originals,” Hilary explains. “This kind of music got more conservative a decade later in the 1940s, with the Andrew Sisters taking the vocal trio format more mainstream, even though they were swinging and super-tight in their own way. But the Boswell Sisters had a kind of instrumental approach to harmony singing, and there was a wildness to what they did, with abrupt tempo changes, crazy harmonies and ensemble scatting as if they were singing from one brain. We love them. That said, we’re not doing re-creations at all. Our voices, personalities and 21st-century sensibilities help impart individuality to what we’re doing. We’re making these songs our own, naturally.”
Hilary recalls how Duchess got together: “Melissa and I had each sung with Amy in various situations, developing a real rapport with her. Amy also leads duet nights at the 55 Bar with a wide range of singers, and those nights in the Village are so fearless and fun, with that spirit helping inform Duchess. About a year ago, the three of us teamed for the first time to sing some Boswell Sisters and Andrew Sisters charts at the 55 Bar, and it went over amazingly well. We were also Matt Wilson’s backing choir for his Christmas Tree-O project at the Jazz Standard – and, again, it just went over so well. It was a blast for us and the audience.” Amy points out that it was arranger Oded Lev-Ari who had the bright notion that the three women sing together, adding: “I know I’m biased seeing as he’s my husband, but he really does have some great ideas! It went so well when we sang those stock Boswell Sisters and Andrew Sisters charts that he was inspired to write custom arrangements for us. His arrangements are tailored for our voices, with this playful, imaginative correspondence between the history of this sort of music and our individual, contemporary sensibilities.”
Along with those craft-honing, crowd-pleasing New York shows during a three-month residency at the 55 Bar, Duchess brought the house down in New Orleans, native ground for the Boswell Sisters sound. The group was invited to the Crescent City to participate in a celebration of the Boswell Sisters by Kyla Titus, a granddaughter of one of the sisters and who runs an association for preserving their music. Melissa recalls: “Groups specializing in Boswell Sisters material from all over the world went down for the event. It was amazing how well they could do that music note-for-note. We only do a handful of numbers from the Boswell Sisters repertoire – we’re more inspired by the spirit than the letter. But when we sang at Snug Harbor down there, people were so into it. I think they appreciated this tongue-in-cheek, slightly down-and-dirty thing we have going on.”
About the magical stage rapport among the three singers, Amy adds: “The chemistry with the three of us was special from the beginning – the sort of chemistry you can’t predict and that doesn’t happen very often. The audience response really did have a lot to do with us pursuing the group. People were having such a good time, bobbing their heads and dancing in their seats. Duchess is all about combining swinging with fun. There can be a fine line between entertaining and schtick, but we take care to fall on the right side of that. It’s serious fun, in that we take the music seriously but not ourselves.” And Melissa shares a story about one of the best responses to the Duchess sound and sensibility: “It was from a musician, a vibes player who had a set after us at the 55 Bar. He came up to us and said, ‘You know, the audience doesn’t realize how difficult what you’re doing really is. They’re having too good of a time’.”