What does one call the combination of three New York-based vocalists, each possessing dazzling musicianship, impeccable taste and biting wit? The answer is: Duchess. With a penchant for hard-swinging and harmony-filled music, Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner and Melissa Stylianou have won over audiences at the Jerusalem Jazz Festival, the Monterey Jazz Festival and Jazz at Lincoln Centre. The group tips a hat to vocal trios of yore while remaining thoroughly modern. Their live performances are particularly joyous and entertaining, leading the Wall Street Journal to note, “they understand that swinging music goes hand in hand with an audacious sense of humour.” Duchess makes their European debut this Summer with performances in Copenhagen, Edinburgh, Wales and London. Nicky Schrire chatted to the vocal trio about their upcoming tour:
LJN: When people think of female vocal trios, they often think of the sisters Andrews and Boswell. For anyone who has heard your albums Duchess, Laughing at Life, and Harmony for the Holidays, or seen you live, they know that those comparisons are a mere jumping off point. In what ways does Duchess’ musical pathdiverge and expand on those more traditional influences?
Hilary: As three women singing and swinging in close harmony style, it’s pretty difficult – impossible, really – to escape the influence of the Andrews and Boswell Sisters (nor would we want to!). But I love the way you describe the inspiration of those vocal trios as a “jumping off point”.
Melissa: We love the close-harmony of the sisters groups we have been inspired by, and Oded Lev-Ari has done a super-human job of adapting this model to fit the particular vocal qualities and the quirks of our personalities so that we each feel like we’re as much ourselves within Duchess as possible.
Amy: I agree. Having our arrangements custom tailored for us with a modern harmonic sensibility by Oded pushes us into a different territory.
Hilary: I like to think of Duchess as a continuation of the venerable tradition begun by the Boswell and Andrews Sisters.
LJN: Your trio has collaborated with some wonderful musicians like Christian McBride, Anat Cohen, Kat Edmonson, Wycliffe Gordon, and Jeff Goldblum. Do any of those musical meetings stand out as being particularly special or eventful?
Amy: All of these collaborations have been so great. For me, the absolute highlight was playing with Christian McBride. You feel that man’s playing in your entire body. I got a chance to trade fours with him and it was terrifying and thrilling simultaneously. He also happens to be a terrific human being.
Hilary: The night we sat in with Jeff Goldblum in Los Angeles is a special memory. We were blind from fatigue (we’d gotten up at 4am that day for an early flight and Jeff’s set is LATE) and we sang a funny Gershwin tune with Jeff and his band for a packed house. Reggie Watts was hanging out, too, and the whole night felt kind of surreal and very L.A.
Melissa: Each person you mentioned brought something so special and unique to our shows, and we’ve collaborated many times with most of them (having recorded with Anat and Wycliffe and singing backing vocals on Kat’s latest album). I will never forget the day Oded Lev-Ari sent us a video of Anat laying down the perfect solo over Everybody Loves My Baby from Laughing at Life. We’re just so lucky to have incredible friends!
LJN: All three of you are active solo performers, who record and perform under your own names. What are the perks (musically, psychologically, logistically) of also belonging to a working trio?
Melissa: I love the order of your offered perks. I think that hits the nail on the head for me. We are in this for the long-haul and are invested in a good working relationship, so we do what smart, loving partners do and take care of each other and ourselves.
Amy: It’s definitely less pressure than the solo part of my career. Duchess is a true partnership on and off the stage and it’s lovely to not be in charge of everything all the time.
Hilary: On the most fundamental level, there’s so much joy that I derive from just singing with Amy and Melissa. We all bring different strengths and points of view to the table – musically and otherwise – so it’s wonderful to “divide and conquer,” so to speak.
LJN: I, for one, am so thrilled that European audiences are going to experience Duchess live. What are you most looking forward to in bringing your brand of swing and verve to Europe, and what awaits Duchess when you return to the USA?
Amy: We are so excited for our first European adventure. It’s always nice to meet people who have never heard us or even heard OF us. We are super excited to get on the road.
Hilary: This tour came about in large part thanks to some new relationships we’ve developed abroad, and it’s going to be great to meet those folks in person.
Melissa: When we return to the USA, we will head to another new market, the Litchfield Jazz Festival July 27. Then we head to various lake and seaside settings with our respective families before preparing to release our live album in the Fall of 2019, and also rehearse for our collaboration with the Paul Taylor Dance Company as the live accompaniment to their piece Company B at Lincoln Center!
LJN: Much like George Martin was considered the “fifth Beatle”, one could say that arranger Oded Lev-Ari is the “fourth Duchess”. Oded has a distinct voice as an arranger and composer (having written for and musical directed Anat Cohen’s Tentet). How would you describe the musical result of Oded’s involvement in this group?
Amy: I am completely biased (Oded is my husband, after all) but I think the ladies would agree with me that we would not be able to do this without Oded. He knows our voices so well and really writes for us in the way that Duke Ellington would write for specific horn players. He really is the Charlie to our Angels. That invisible voice and presence that is hardly seen but always felt.
Duchess’ European Tour Dates:
Copenhagen Jazz Festival
July 15 – 16
Edinburgh Jazz Festival
July 15: Duchess, Piccolo, George Square, 6pm
July 16: Queens of Swing, Scottish Swing Orchestra with guests Duchess/Irini Arabatzi, 8pm
The Concorde Club, Eastleigh UK
Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea, Wales
Toulouse Lautrec, London
LINK: Duchess website
Duchess (from left): Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner and Melissa Stylianou (Photo: Shervin Lainez)