Jazz singer Melissa Stylianou has been turning heads and capturing hearts since the turn of this century, from her native Toronto to her adopted home of New York City, from intimate club residencies to top festival stages. She has won fans far and wide with her recording projects, along with praise from DownBeat to The New Yorker. Stylianou’s newest album – No Regrets, her fifth disc and second for the New York-based Anzic Records – is about the joy of spontaneity and making the most of the moment. She recorded a set of jazz standards and other favorites in a live-to-two-track, noon-to-night studio session backed by a 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. As ever, Stylianou’s singing is a delight, reinforcing the description by Grammy-nominated pianist Fred Hersch, who says: “Melissa has it all – a gorgeous instrument, superb musicianship and great taste.”
The New Yorker has described Stylianou as “an affecting jazz singer with a taste for choice material,” and her previous albums have seen the vocalist 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 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 lyrical twist on Thelonious Monk, the indigo-hued chestnut “A Nightingale Can Sing the Blues” and even Anglo-folk tune “Down By the Salley Gardens.”
“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 learned to be a singer. Spontaneity and a sense of play were the rule in that environment, and I absorbed the style naturally.” No Regrets is the sound of Stylianou letting go and “having the most fun I’ve ever had in a recording studio,” she says. “The title No Regrets refers to that sense of leaping in, being fully yourself and taking risks without second-guessing. The session felt so free. 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.”
In the JazzTimes review of Stylianou’s previous Anzic album – Silent Movie, from 2012– the magazine declared that she had advanced to “the forefront of contemporary vocalists, rivaling the storytelling élan of Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon.” Silent Movie saw Stylianou concentrate on conveying intimate, evocative stories in song, backed by a collective of top musicians from the New York scene. Adding her own lyrics, she breathed fresh emotional life into instrumental pieces by Edgar Meyer and Vince Mendoza, and the disc’s affecting, revealing title track was a Stylianou co-composition with her husband, pianist Jamie Reynolds. Elsewhere on the album, she renewed numbers long beloved in jazz – “Smile,” “Moon River,” “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” – even as she kept broadening the field by putting a distinctive spin on songs by James Taylor (“Something in the Way She Moves”), Paul Simon (“Hearts and Bones”), Johnny Cash (“I Still Miss Someone”) and Joanna Newsom (“Swansea”). Stylianou said: “I’ve always been drawn to songs as ‘small stories.’ Silent Movie was all about focusing on telling those stories.”
After making a name with standards on her 1999 debut album, It Never Entered My Mind, Stylianou showed a flair for expanding the jazz songbook. Her 2001 release, Bachelorette, juxtaposed tunes by Thelonious Monk and Fats Waller with the Björk title track and songs by Sting and Tom Waits – all delivered with the singer’s signature charm and musicality. 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 original tunes. JazzTimes magazine was 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.”
At the 55 Bar in Manhattan’s West Village – where Stylianou has had a residency since 2008 – the singer regularly explores new material with her colorful, interactive group: pianist Jamie Reynolds, guitarist Pete McCann, bassist Gary Wang and drummer Mark Ferber. Stylianou has also long been a member of Ike Sturm’s ensemble Evergreen, singing original jazz settings of sacred music at St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan. Underscoring her more venturesome, improvisational side, she has been the featured vocalist with Gregg Bendian’s Mahavishnu Project, dedicated to performing the music of John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. To Stylianou, the Mahavishnu Project offered “a different kind of intensity to what I do on my own,” she says. “It’s the hardest music I’ve ever performed but also some of the most rewarding. The material is rhythmically complex, demands a lot of improvising, and it gets thrillingly loud at times. I sweat a little doing it, which is good for any performer. But, really, it can be just as unsettling to sing a ballad in a place like the 55 Bar. That kind of intimate vulnerability is its own challenge.”
In New York, Stylianou has sung on the most prestigious stages, from Carnegie Hall, Symphony Space, Joe’s Pub, Blue Note, Birdland and Jazz Standard to the 55 Bar, Smoke, Sweet Rhythm, Iridium, Cutting Room and Cornelia Street Café. Having earned a glowing reputation among the most discerning audiences, critics and peers, Stylianou has performed with such top jazz talents as Matt Wilson, Joel Frahm, Anat Cohen, Bruce Barth,Gary Versace, Ben Monder, Steve Cardenas, Pete McCann, Chris Lightcap, Cameron Brown, Linda Oh, John Hart, Keith Ganz, Mark Ferber, Orlando le Fleming and Gene Bertoncini, as well as with Helen Sung’s Sung With Words project, Joe Phillips’ large ensemble Numinous, Premik Russell Tubbs’ Bangalore Breakdown, the Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra and the David Schumacher Group. Stylianou also teaches Music Together classes to young children, as well as voice at the 92nd Street Y.
“Being a jazz musician has taught me so much, even beyond the music,” Stylianou says. “I’m a something of a perfectionist by nature, but jazz has taught me to embrace imperfection and the possibilities it offers, the adventure of living in the moment.”