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Duchess: A Sisterly Listening Session

Before & After with the vocal trio

Vocal trio Duchess (photo by Shervin Lainez)
Hilary Gardner, Amy Cervini and Melissa Stylianou (from left) are Duchess (photo by Shervin Lainez)

Though vocalists Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner and Melissa Stylianou boast impressive solo careers, they share a long history of professional intersections. Cervini and Gardner were once half of a vocal quartet, Monday Off, formed in 1999; Cervini and Stylianou, both Canadian by birth, have been uniting off and on since the mid-2000s. (Gardner originally hails from Alaska.) And a few years back, all three teamed with singer Carolyn Leonhart. But it wasn’t until 2013 that they uncorked the sparkling Duchess, after Cervini’s husband, Oded Lev-Ari, the composer, arranger, producer and pianist, suggested the three pals form a trio.

Specializing in what they cheekily refer to as “girl-on-girl harmony,” the threesome made their recording debut in 2015 with Duchess, earning widespread praise for their tight harmonies and fun-loving revelry, both of which draw heavily on such sororal outfits as the Boswells, Andrews and McGuires. Their recent follow-up, Laughing at Life (released, like its predecessor, on the Anzic label), is every bit as clever and delightful. Earlier this year, while in Toronto for a multi-night engagement, the duchesses sat down with JazzTimes to test their knowledge of singers and vocal groups, vintage and new.

  1. Johnny Mercer & the Pied Pipers

“Jamboree Jones” (Mosaic Select 28: Johnny Mercer, Mosaic).
Mercer, the Pied Pipers (Hal Hopper, Chuck Lowry, Jo Stafford, Clark Yocum), vocals; Paul Weston and His Orchestra.
Recorded in 1943.


Hilary Gardner: It’s Johnny Mercer.

Yes, but not by himself.

Melissa Stylianou: Peggy Lee?

Amy Cervini: Is it an Andrews sister?

HG: It’s not Jo Stafford?


AC: What a great track! It blows my mind every time I hear the Johnny Mercer thing. It’s like I’m hearing it for the first time every time.

HG: He wrote so many songs that are iconic standards, and he [co-founded] Capitol Records. I think of all that stuff, but he totally could have had a career just being a really great singer.

AC: Jo Stafford is amazing and … Darlene! [Stafford’s comically off-key alter ego Darlene Edwards] C’mon! That stuff! The first time I heard it I was crying from laughing so hard. But the only way she could have ever done that was because she is so amazing. You have to be spot-on in order to get spot-off the way she did.

MS: I can do it by accident!

HG: [Mercer] always sounds like he’s just talking to you. His recording, with Margaret Whiting, of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is my favorite, because it’s so conversational and warm and it’s not showy.

  1. Sarah Vaughan & Billy Eckstine

“You’re Just in Love” (Sing the Best of Irving Berlin, Mercury). Vaughan, Eckstine, vocals; Hal Mooney and His Orchestra. Released in 1958.


HG: Johnny Hartman. No?

MS: Is it Billy Eckstine?

AC: With Sass!


AC: I hear Seth MacFarlane. I used to think he was doing Sinatra, but Billy Eckstine seems even more an influence.

HG: Plenty of vibrato to go around with these two! It’s not a dig. Talk about just rolling around in luxurious sound.

AC: They sound so good. It’s playful and fun and really sexy.

MS: He was a total heartthrob, too!

HG: The Ella and Louis duets were characterized by the contrast between them. [Here] there’s a similarity, a real simpatico [rapport] with these velvety voices, and they’re really free with their vibrato. They dip and swoop and intertwine, and you can tell they’re really having fun.

  1. Dean Martin & the Hi-Lo’s

“If This Isn’t Love” (Reprise Musical Repertory Theatre Presents: Finian’s Rainbow, Reprise). Martin, the Hi-Lo’s (Clark Burroughs, Bob Morse, Gene Puerling, Don Shelton), vocals; orchestra conducted by Morris Stoloff. Recorded in 1963.


AC & HG: It’s Dean!

HG: He is so underrated.

AC: I just love Dean.

HG: We just lost Amy. She’ll be in a reverie for the rest of the song. Is it [with] the Four Freshmen?


AC: Well, I melted in a puddle. Mr. Dean Martin! The three of us have a great love for those Rat Pack boys—not only their singing but their energy. We have this picture of us in the studio from our first record that eerily mirrors a photo of them.

MS: But without the cigarettes.

HG: Or the scotch! I think Dean Martin faced two really big disadvantages. He’s not appreciated enough for the quality of his singing. That was a burning tempo; that’s not a tempo for amateurs. His feel is right on the money [and] the intonation is perfect. But his disadvantages were that he made it seem really effortless and he stood next to Frank Sinatra for so much of his career.

  1. José James

“I Thought About You” (Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday, Blue Note). James, vocals; Jason Moran, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Eric Harland, drums.
Released in 2015.


MS: Is it Kevin Mahogany?


AC: I love Jason. I don’t know José James’ stuff enough, but I really liked that.

MS: It was nice and relaxed, just letting the song unfold. It made me think of Andy Bey.

HG: To be able to be that relaxed and open in a tempo that slow—that’s an Andy Bey signature.

AC: And I like how Jason gets a little church-y. You can never have enough church, I think.

MS: Amen!

  1. MOSS

“Shadows and Light 1” (MOSS, Sunnyside). MOSS (Theo Bleckmann, Peter Eldridge, Lauren Kinhan, Kate McGarry, Luciana Souza), vocals. Performed a cappella, vocal arrangement by Souza. Released in 2008.


AC: [five seconds in] Oh, it’s MOSS.


MS: That’s exquisite.

AC: You go to the concerts and my mouth is on the floor the whole time, because there’s so much to it and the arranging is really cool and they’re very different, [so] you wouldn’t expect it necessarily to work. I’ve loved them all individually for a long time, so when they came together I was really excited.

I sang at a friend’s wedding. It was Peter’s arrangement, and it was something MOSS had done, I think, and it was Theo and Kate and Peter and I, and it was really nerve-racking. It was so different for me. I was new to the party. … They know how to make that happen and work with each other, and I was like, “I don’t know where I fit into this puzzle.”

HG: It’s very hard to do that with such precision and beauty and really egoless-ness. There’s a few solo lines, but clearly everybody’s in service of making those moments happen where these chords and sounds lock in.

  1. Carmen McRae

“I’m Always Drunk in San Francisco” (Live at Century Plaza, Atlantic [Japan]). McRae, vocals; Norman Simmons, piano; Chuck Domanico, bass; Frank Severino, drums. Released in 1975.


All three: Carmen!


AC: Whose tune is this?

Tommy Wolf.

MS: When I first started listening to jazz singers, in my late teens, I listened to a lot of Ella, Billie and Sarah and didn’t come across Carmen until much later. But when I did, it was like, “Oh, shit! This is something else.” I just devoured it. My solo tune [“Where Would You Be Without Me?”] on our latest album, I grabbed from her. It’s from The Roar of the Greasepaint—The Smell of the Crowd, but it’s her vibe I’m trying to capture. I just want to be her in so many ways.

AC: I’ve never heard that song. It’s probably obscure because it’s not easy. There are a lot of lyrics in there.

  1. The Manhattan Transfer

“Four Brothers” (Pastiche, Atlantic). The Manhattan Transfer (Tim Hauser, Laurel Massé, Alan Paul, Janis Siegel), vocals; Wayne Andre, Urbie Green, David Taylor, trombones; Randy Brecker, Marky Markowitz, Alan Rubin, Marvin Stamm, trumpets; Al Cohn, Lew Del Gatto, Jimmy Giuffre [also composer], Lee Konitz, saxophones; Jon Mayer, piano; Andy Muson, bass; Art Rodriquez, drums; Ira Newborn, musical arrangement, conductor, guitar. Vocal arrangement by Siegel. Released in 1978.


HG: It’s the Manhattan Transfer and “Four Brothers.”


HG: In my fantasies, when I was a kid singing along, I was Janis! Listening to this, I think of Anita O’Day. I think so much of her performance of this tune and I really hear that in Janis’ singing, but I don’t know if I’m just superimposing that onto [Janis’] performance.

That was my first concert, in Anchorage, Alaska. It was astonishing to me that these four people could stand up, open their mouths and that sound was real and in the room. … I love Cheryl’s [Bentyne, who replaced Massé in 1978] singing, but [Massé] had that warmer timbre that is more like Janis’ in the lower range.

AC: I’ve been singing Manhattan Transfer’s stuff since I was in high school, maybe before, and the thing I’ve learned about them over the years is that they were so avant-garde—performance-art level, sometimes. That was their vibe. … They’d go for really crazy stuff as part of their signature. They’re amazing.

MS: When we get through our fastest thing I’m always self-congratulatory, but I’ve never had the opportunity or the capacity to do that. It takes such skill to execute that accurately and so quickly and still be able to convey something where we’re hearing the story.

HG: I love how fearless they are as a group. They’ve done so many different things, some of them quite off the wall, some right down the middle, and they’re all killing.

  1. Karrin Allyson

“Many a New Day” (Many a New Day: Karrin Allyson Sings Rodgers & Hammerstein, Motéma). Allyson, vocals; Kenny Barron, piano; John Patitucci, bass. Released in 2015.


AC & HG: Karrin!

HG: Is this the Rodgers and Hammerstein album?


HG: It’s totally off-topic, but I’d love to ask Sara Gazarek how much she’s listened to Karrin. There’s this really natural speech-driven kind of straight-tone thing I’m hearing that seems simpatico with them. It’s hard to tell on these speakers, but I think the piano is mixed too high. I want the vocal out front.

MS: That was great, so swinging and breezy, and she has such a warm and airy sound, but also bright and kinda sunny. And the tune invites that too.

AC: I remember seeing her do this tune about drugs, really dark, and she sells that too.

HG: Was it Randy Newman’s “Guilty”?

AC: Yes, it was “Guilty.” I’d never heard the tune before, and I just believed 100-percent that she was there on the bathroom floor.

HG: I saw her a number of times in my early 20s, when I was living in Seattle, and she’s always struck me as an artist who knows exactly who she is, and she knows exactly what her voice is and what will suit it. She’s done a lot of diverse things. I love the French-Brazilian record she did, From Paris to Rio, and it couldn’t be more different from the In Blue record, which is also very different from this. But they all made perfect sense with her instrument and her sensibility.

  1. Amy London/Darmon Meader/Dylan Pramuk/Holli Ross

“Nothing Like You Has Ever Been Seen Before” (The Royal Bopsters Project, Motéma). London, Meader, Pramuk, Ross, vocals; Bob Dorough, guest vocalist; Roni Ben-Hur, guitar, Steve Schmidt, piano; Sean Smith, Cameron Brown, bass; Steve Williams, drums; Steven Kroon, percussion. Released in 2015.


AC: That’s the Bopsters.

HG: Is that Bob…

AC: Yep, that’s Bobby Dorough—93 this year, I think. [Dorough turns 94 on Dec. 12.]

HG: Is that Holli on top?

AC: No, it’s Amy London on top.


HG: When I first moved to New York City, he sang a jazz brunch at the Iridium. I would go there every weekend and he adopted me, so I got to sing with Bob Dorough. He’s so amazing. He’s just right in there, hangin’ and swingin’ in his 90s. It’s not for the faint of heart, that tune.

What’s your impression of the entire album?

MS: I’m glad they did it. Thank goodness. That was Mark Murphy’s last recording, and didn’t they record with Jon Hendricks as well?

And Annie Ross, and Sheila Jordan.

AC: These guys—Bob Dorough, Annie Ross, Sheila Jordan—are hipsters; they’re outside a little bit. Even in the jazz realm they were a little left of center, and maybe they never got their due as much as they should. Too often that doesn’t happen for people until they pass away. Most of those singers are still around, and clearly they knew they were loved and admired when they were tapped to do this recording. There’s a whole scene in New York where they really do hold up our elder statesmen. It’s important to support them, and it shows in this. They’re legends to us, maybe not to the world. And whether we know it or not, we were influenced by them, because even if you don’t know Mark you know Kurt [Elling].

  1. Lambert, Hendricks & Ross

“In a Mellow Tone” (Lambert, Hendricks & Ross Sing Ellington, Columbia). Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks, Annie Ross, vocals. With the Ike Isaacs Trio (Isaacs, bass; Gildo Mahones, piano; Jimmy Wormworth, drums). Released in 1960.


AC: It’s Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.

MS: That is a mellow key.

AC: But just wait!

HG: A lot of people sing this music and precious few make it sound that natural. … It just feels so easy.


MS: Oh, man!

AC: They’re amazing.

HG: It feels new now, even though it’s a very old recording.

MS: There’s this special life force.

HG: It feels alive and kind of dangerous. As great as a lot of the stuff we’ve heard today is, and I’m thinking about the Bopsters’ track—and they’re incredible, and I’m not casting any aspersions—nothing that is recreated has that kind of edge, where it feels like it could go anywhere and anything could happen.

AC: I was at the Iridium’s tribute to Jon Hendricks, and Kurt Elling spoke about Jon and how he really is this treasure and a poet, and the lyrics [and the] vocalese he wrote are just extraordinary as stories. I had to learn this recently, and by “learn,” let’s put some air quotes around that, because I did my best, [and] because the images were painted so vividly, it was easy. Originally Published