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Covering songs with Style

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From jamming with Harry Connick Jr. to playing with local Toronto bands, Ryerson grad Melissa Stylianou jazzes it up for the regulars at The Rex every Friday night.

By Erin Kobayashi

You don’t know mortification until your celebrity crush jumps on stage after you confess you like him to the audience.

It was at the 1999 Toronto Jazz Festival that jazz vocalist and Ryerson theatre graduate Melissa Stylianou announced her teenage crush on Harry Connick Jr., unaware that he was in town.

“This dude in a ball cap just jumped up onstage and changed places with my piano player, which I thought was very cocky. Then I realized who he was.”

But once the music started, all was forgotten and the two performed together for the remainder of the night.

When she graduated from Ryerson in 1998, Stylianou formed a jazz quartet, put together a demo and sent it to the manager at The Rex, who got her a regular gig. Now, she sings there every Friday night.

Stylianou’s training in theatre has given her an edge in her jazz performances.

“The similarities between jazz and acting is the in-the-moment creation of the art… letting emotions pass through you and being vulnerable enough to express that to the audience,” she says.

The 25-year-old has enjoyed success with her second CD, bachelorette*, the title track originally sung by Bjork. The CD is full of pop tunes and jazz standards, mostly cover songs, as well as one original song. Stylianou was hesitant at first to use the title bachelorette* for her CD, seeing as people may associate negative connotations with the word. To her, the word means “being alone, independent and listening to your inner voice.”

Living in a King Street pad for a couple of years, Stylianou has gained her own independence and artistic control. She has established her own record label, Sleepin’ Bee Music, and in addition to her solo jazz career, she’s involved in four other projects including Bosom Buddies, a jazz vocal duo with friend Bonnie Brett; Slim’s Lucky Number, a swing band; Spit Fire Band, a 19-piece band and a three-part harmony group.

Live, Stylianou easily pours in and out of her songs with sincere expression.

“She doesn’t do vocal gymnastics like so many jazz and especially pop artists today,” says Kim Ratcliffe, co-producer of Stylianou’s album and guitarist in her band.

“She’s not trying to impress you and show off what she can do with crazy vocal flourishes (à la Mariah Carey). Mel is more direct, she’s coming from the Frank Sinatra school of singing.”

A perfectionist at heart, the songstress knows that great jazz artists have to take risks with their voice and improvise.

“With jazz, there are no wrong notes, so I’m trying to sing more wrong notes. Allowing yourself to make musical mistakes can turn into something intensely beautiful,” she says.

Growing up, Stylianou (who last name hails from Cyprian Greek ancestry) moved to about every suburb in the GTA — where she had to learn to fit in and force herself to be more extroverted. Throughout high school Stylianou was involved in plays and musicals.

Creativity and self-expression played an important role in her formative years as Stylianou’s mother, a music teacher, helped her vocally.

“We didn’t have a lot of money at a certain point in our lives so we had a lot of family time spent together, storytelling and being creative with our little minds.”

Her first encounter with jazz was in grade 9 when she borrowed an Ella Fitzgerald recording from the library. She fell in love with her voice and jazz music.

Fortunately, with Stylianou’s talent and focus, she’s breaking the bad girl bachelorette stereotype of a carefree player and redefining it as a femme fatale with focus.

Melissa Stylianou performs every Friday at 6:30 p.m. at The Rex Hotel, 194 Queen W.

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