The fifth album from singer Melissa Stylianou - No Regrets (to be released Oct. 28, 2014, Anzic Records) - is all about the joy of spontaneity and making the most of the moment. The Canadian-born, New York-based vocalist recorded a set of jazz standards and other favorites in a live-to-two-track, noon-to-night studio session - old-school - backed by an ultra-simpatico trio of New York all-stars: pianist Bruce Barth, double-bassist Linda Oh and drummer Matt Wilson, with stylish guest spots by clarinetist Anat Cohen and alto saxophonist Billy Drewes. The New Yorker has described Stylianou as "an unmannered and affecting jazz singer with a taste for choice material," and past albums have seen her put a personal spin on songs from Björk and Joanna Newsom to Johnny Cash to Tom Waits, not to mention her own lovely original compositions. Jazz standards have been a part of the mix, too, but No Regrets - intimately produced by Oded Lev-Ari - sees Stylianou delve into vintage material like never before. She sings songs by likes of the Gershwins, Jerome Kern and Duke Ellington, along with a Billie Holiday tune, a vocal twist on Thelonious Monk, the indigo-hued chestnut "A Nightingale Can Sing the Blues" and, as a left-field inclusion, a folk setting of Yeats, "Down by the Salley Gardens." This beautiful album once again underscores why DownBeat Magazine has called her a "sophisticated storyteller" and an "original."
Stylianou - a 38-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 an ongoing multi-year run at the 55 Bar in New York's West Village. Reviewing Stylianou's Silent Movie, her previous Anzic album, JazzTimes declared that she had advanced to "the forefront of contemporary vocalists, rivaling the storytelling élan of Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon." With No Regrets, Stylianou builds on her varied New York experiences while revisiting the repertoire she learned and loved in her early Canadian club days.
"This album, both the material and the way we recorded it, are very different from my previous four - it's like coming full circle for me," Stylianou explains. "Singing jazz standards in clubs was how I really learned to be a singer, since I studied acting instead of going to music school. Spontaneity and a sense of play were the rule in that environment, and I absorbed the style naturally. 'Remind Me,' 'I'll Never Be the Same Again,' 'Polka Dots and Moonbeams' and 'Humming to Myself' are songs I've been in love with ever since those days - they're inside my voice, inside me. Even 'Down by the Salley Gardens' comes from my days in Canada. We're lovers of Irish culture up there, and I learned the tune during tipsy singalongs on St. Patrick's Day. I did it on this album as just a duo with Matt Wilson on drums. It's very elemental, highlighting its merits as a lovely story in song."
No Regrets is the sound of Stylianou letting go and "having the most fun I've ever had in a recording studio," she says. "I tend to be an over-thinker in my personal life, but I'm drawn to living in the moment when it comes to music. The title No Regrets refers to that sense of leaping in, being fully yourself and taking risks without second-guessing. Oded Lev-Ari, who also produced Silent Movie, is so good at fostering a sense of spontaneity and ease in the studio, even when you're recording live with no overdubs and doing the whole album in a day. He manages to be both hands-on and hands-off. The session felt so free, with everyone giving so generously of themselves to the songs and to the moment. Everybody approached the music seriously - but without taking ourselves too seriously. There was a blend of humor and urgency, as if we were playing a really great gig in the studio."
The virtuoso rhythm section supporting Stylianou throughout No Regrets - pianist Bruce Barth, bassist Linda Oh and drummer Matt Wilson - had never played together as a trio before, coming together specifically for the singer. Characteristically, Wilson's participation helped set the high-spirited tone. "Matt's good vibes are famous - he approaches music with a sense of play, as something fun," Stylianou says. "More than that, he listens so hard that he inspires everyone else to do the same. Working with Matt is like working with a magician - he makes incredible things happen that you'd never expect."
Regarding Bruce Barth, Stylianou enthuses: "I've had a musical crush on Bruce for a long time. The man swings so hard, and he's great with on-the-spot arrangements, like for 'Remind Me.' Plus, playing with him is so easy and joyful because he's an incredible accompanist who genuinely loves singers and songs." New to Stylianou, bassist Linda Oh was Lev-Ari's suggestion for the session - a happy introduction. "I was so impressed with Linda's musicality and her beautiful sound, as well as how much she put into the music," the singer says. "Her long solo intro for 'I Wish I Knew' is wonderfully personal."
The guest horn players brought further personalized virtuosity to several tracks, with clarinetist Anat Cohen soloing on "Somebody's on My Mind" and "I'll Never Be the Same" and saxophonist Billy Drewes on "I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good)" and "A Nightingale Sings the Blues." Stylianou says: "Anat was a key part of the sound of Silent Movie and to have her back was a treat. She's a kindred spirit with Matt - this seriously playful, or playfully serious, musician. Her sheer pleasure in making music spurs everyone around her to go for it. On the spur of the moment, Oded suggested having 'Somebody's on My Mind' be just clarinet, bass and voice - and I think it turned out special that way." As for Drewes, the singer says: "Billy brings a distinctive edge on alto, contributing so much soul and feeling."
Stylianou will present No Regrets on December 2 at an album-release show at New York City's Jazz Standard, with Bruce Barth, Linda Oh and Matt Wilson reprising their roles from the recording - as will Billy Drewes. Stylianou's fellow singers in the vocal group Duchess - Amy Cervini and Hilary Gardner (with whom she has a new album in the can) - will add more color. Prior to the Manhattan show, Stylianou will celebrate the release of No Regrets in Canada with three nights at Toronto's Jazz Bistro, Nov. 20-22. The band for the Canadian shows will be pianist Jamie Reynolds, bassist Andrew Downing and Matt Wilson on drums.
"I'm so looking forward to performing the songs of No Regrets live with these musicians," Stylianou says. "I gave myself permission to let go while making this album - because I've found that the emotions of the songs come through best that way. I hope listeners feel something of the freedom and fun that we experienced making it."
Melissa Stylianou: No Regrets
1. "Nice Work If You Can Get It" (George & Ira Gershwin)
2. "Remind Me" (Jerome Kern, Dorothy Fields, arr. Bruce Barth)
3. "I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good)" (Duke Ellington, Paul Francis Webster)
4. "Humming to Myself" (Sammy Fain, Herb Magidson, Monty Siegel)
5. "I Wish I Knew" (Mack Gordon, Harry Warren)
6. "Somebody's on My Mind" (Arthur Herzog Jr., Billie Holiday)
7. "Down by the Salley Gardens" (William Butler Yeats, traditional)
8. "A Nightingale Can Sing the Blues" (Dick Charles, Larry Marks)
9. "I'll Never Be the Same" (Matt Malneck, Gus Kahn, Frank Signorelli)
10. "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" (Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Burke)
11. "I Mean You" (Thelonious Monk, Jon Hendricks)
Melissa Stylianou, voice
Bruce Barth, piano
Linda Oh, double-bass
Matt Wilson, drums
Anat Cohen, clarinet (6, 9)
Billy Drewes, alto saxophone (3, 8)
Produced by Oded Lev-Ari
Recorded by James Farber at Sear Sound, NYC
Mastered by Mark Wilder at Battery Studios, NYC