Duchess Looks For Joy In Perilous Times

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Duchess—Amy Cervini (left), Hilary Gardner and Melissa Stylianou—looks to generate joy with Live At Jazz Standard (Anzic).

(Photo: Kyra Kvern)

In 2015, Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner and Melissa Stylianou decided to turn their “magical” vocal synergy into the trio Duchess. And like Ella Fitzgerald before them, the women all cite The Boswell Sisters as a significant and persisting influence.

“I think that when we started and we were looking at The Andrews Sisters—which is what everyone knows first for vocal trios—it seemed a little bit surface,” Cervini said. “When I heard The Boswell Sisters, it really sounded like it was on a different level, musically. It was so interesting to me that they were doing things that were a little more avant-garde because they came first. That sort of surprised me—and delighted me, too.”

The Boswell Sisters were notable for their incredible harmonic and rhythmic acuity, which bolstered what were edgy arrangements for the time. They were so in-sync that in one of the sister’s film appearances, it sounds like three heads on the same body. They even had their own “crazy language,” from growing up together, Cervini asserted.

These three women aren’t blood related, but they have a similar effortless synergy, elevated by the specially tailored arrangements from Grammy-nominated Oded Lev-Ari, Cervini’s husband. It’s been that way since 2015, when Cervini, inspired by her husband’s suggestion, asked Gardner and Stylianou to perform in a trio for a show at New York’s 55 Bar.

“It was so easy right from the first rehearsal,” Stylianou said. “I think it was kind of magical the way we gelled; it was a big bonus.”

Another bonus was that Lev-Ari already knew each singer’s voice and personality—he’d even produced a few of Stylianou’s previous albums—and he used that familiarity to his advantage in crafting Duchess’ live sets.

“We all have very distinct, individual voices. Amy tends to live more in the alto register in our arrangements. She’s our anchor in lot of ways, vocally,” said Gardner, adding that Lev-Ari is “the Charlie to our Angels.” “I would say Melissa and I are both sopranos, but very different kinds of sopranos. We kind of pass the melody around between us. Oded uses those differences and contrasts with our voices really skillfully when he writes the arrangements for us.”

Cervini said having custom arrangements not only lifts their musicality to another level, but allows them to focus more on putting on an unforgettable show: “It’s really the difference between off-the-rack [clothing] and couture. Sometimes, it just doesn’t fit exactly right, [but] what we get to sing fits exactly right. That gives us the opportunity to not worry, to do what we do—which tends to be having a lot of fun.”

Gardner agreed, saying that they’ve closely studied the artful ease and spontaneity of entertainers like The Rat Pack to achieve their onstage energy.

“They weren’t doing close harmony arrangements, but their whole onstage persona—you have this wonderful confluence of these people who were constant professionals, incredible entertainers. But it was so loose, and they were having so much fun. You never really knew what was going to happen,” Gardner said. “It was really fun to spend time with those live recordings and crack up along with them and hear Sammy Davis Jr. just nail a burning big-band arrangement. That’s been a big philosophical inspiration for us.”

It’s been a winning formula. Four months after its first show, Duchess recorded a well-received self-titled album for the Anzic label. In the past five years, the group’s released two more records and toured nationally and internationally. And on March 20, Duchess is set to issue its first live album, Live At Jazz Standard (Anzic), fully capturing how the trio gels onstage and how its music has blossomed over time.

“A lot of the tunes that we’ve performed have really evolved and taken shape in those years and taken on a different life,” said Gardner. “A live show is super fun and there’s no way to capture that or replicate that in a recording studio. So, we wanted to [record a live album]—to send some of our live-show vibes out into the world, maybe for folks who haven’t been to a show.”

Duchess also thought long and hard about the songs it would document on Live At Jazz Standard. Along with rerecording some compositions from its first and second releases, Live At Jazz Standard contains fan favorites from shows like “Chattanooga Choo-choo,” as well as songs new to the group’s repertoire, like “Joseph Joseph,” a tune associated with The Andrews Sisters that Duchess recently performed with the Paul Taylor Dance Company.

The trio also wanted Live At Jazz Standard to be about something band members worry is being forgotten: joy.

“If you dare to open a newspaper or your phone—we’re living in unsettling times,” Gardner said. “I think it’s easy to be dismissive of things that are joyful and fun and happy-making as frivolous when things are difficult. We’ve decided very consciously that it’s necessary to be happy and spread happiness, and to choose joy and to embrace laughter. And that doing so is not only necessary and medicinal, but it’s actually radical.” DB