Duchess Brings Harmony and Hijinks to NYC’s 55 Bar


Hilary Gardner, Melissa Stylianou and Amy Cervini are Duchess. The vocal trio performed at 55 Bar in NYC on Feb. 22.

(Photo: Courtesy of the artists)

One of the more delightful aspects of the vintage jazz revival in New York (and elsewhere) in recent years is the spotlight it has cast on traditional close harmony jazz singing. That tradition begins with the Boswell Sisters, a sensation of the 1930s, and their heirs including the Andrews Sisters and everyone from The Four Freshmen and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross to Manhattan Transfer and The Royal Bopsters.

One of the latest incarnations of this style is Duchess, the trio composed of the accomplished jazz singers Hilary Gardner, Amy Cervini and Melissa Stylianou. This week, the ladies came back to their home base, 55 Bar in Greenwich Village, after a tour of the Midwest, bringing with them their smooth vocal blend and high spirits as they celebrated the release of their second album, Laughing At Life (Anzic Records). These fine jazz vocalists, all of whom have solo careers, seem to be having the time of their lives singing together.

The group was born in 2013 in the tiny 55 Bar, which was standing-room-only on the night of Feb. 22. Notwithstanding the group’s retro concept, Duchess is up-to-date enough to maintain its own podcast, entitled “Harmony and Hijinks.” The “hijinks” part of their persona was on full display in their show, in which jokes and stage patter projected their bubbly personalities and general joie de vivre.

“The trio was Oded’s idea originally,” soprano Gardner said before they performed, referring to Anzic co-owner Oded Lev-Ari, who is the group’s musical arranger and Cervini’s husband.

“When we first started, we used stock Andrews Sisters and Boswell Sisters transcriptions,” Gardner said, “but now Oded arranges everything for us.” Although the style is retro, Gardner says, “we’re not trying to be a tribute band. We aspire to be immediately recognizable in the way the Andrews and Boswells were, but not to sound like them.”

Like much of the music in the current “hot jazz” revival, the musical treatments are up-to-date, even though the source material is vintage. “You won’t hear us doing Beyoncé in Andrews Sisters style,” Gardner noted.

Their quartet—pianist Michael Cabe, bassist Matt Aronoff, drummer Jared Schonig and tenor saxophonist Jeff Lederer—was a well-oiled machine and provided expert, sympathetic accompaniment throughout. Lederer deserves special mention: He was an uninhibited but always in-the-pocket presence from the very first number, the Peggy Lee classic “I Love Being Here With You,” on which he played a raucous, rapturous solo, complete with artfully placed honks, squeaks and squeals.

The next tune was the Clarence Williams classic, “Swing, Brother, Swing,” which showcased their vocal blend at its gentlest and most controlled: It was understated in a way that increased the swing factor.

Later, introducing the band, Gardner riffed hilariously on the disparities between the way men and women tend to be introduced on stage. “When male musicians are introduced, all they talk about is their music and how well they do their jobs. It’s sad, really. So in an attempt to create a more just world, we’re going to try to even things out a little bit.”

She then proceeded to describe the band in winkingly lascivious terms, noting at one point that drummer Schonig has “legs for days” and possesses “a big, fat, relentlessly driving….[pause for effect] quarter note.” It became the perfect introduction for “It’s A Man,” a loving takedown of the opposite sex originally recorded by Betty Hutton circa 1951.

The band had a second secret weapon this night: the brilliant clarinetist (and the “An” in “Anzic”) Anat Cohen, whose breathtaking technique and imaginative improvisations graced several tunes. A sweet, sincere reading of the bittersweet classic “We’ll Meet Again” featured a lilting Cohen solo. It was followed by “Hallelujah, I Love Him So”—a Gardner specialty with call-and-response urgings from Cervini and Stylianou. During the solos, Cohen and Lederer got into a bit of a cutting contest, in which the audience was the winner.

Ellington’s “Creole Love Call,” the classic slow-blues shuffle, is deceptively simple, but proved a delicious vocal challenge for the trio and turned out to be one of the evening’s highlights. The arrangement was by trombonist/singer Wycliffe Gordon (who scatted and played on the album version). The vocals, which mimic Ellington’s three clarinets, caressed Lorraine Feather’s lyric before featuring a simple, plaintive and highly effective solo by Stylianou. But that was just a warm-up for an extended, and impressive, passage of group vocal improvisation, leading to a clever, nicely executed modulation.

Duchess chose the Boswell Sisters’ classic “Everybody Loves My Baby” for its finale. As children, the Boswells invented their own nearly indecipherable version of Pig Latin, which they called “Double Dog Latin.” For its version, Duchess composed a rapid-fire passage with new lyrics, which end with the lines:

“Harmony and hijinks are the currency we deal in/Though we love the Bozzies’ honey, no we ain’t a-stealin’/Got a style that’s all our own and we know it’s so appealing here and now!”

It is, indeed. DB

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