By Melanie Stuparyk
What better way to discover a talent for improvisation and jazz-phrasing than to be locked out of a theatre in the middle of a performance? Melissa Stylianou, a Toronto jazz vocalist, had that experience while playing the part of Anita in her high school’s performance of West Side Story.
After finding the stage door locked, she had to run around the theatre, do a quick costume change, and make a late entrance into the scene. Her first phrase in the song had already passed but she used her instincts to fit all the words into the remaining music and discovered that improvisation and “not sticking to the words on the page” were what she loved most about performing.
This past weekend, Stylianou used her love of improvisation during her performances at Top O’ The Senator. Suffering from a bronchial infection that made it difficult to breathe, she still managed to sweep through her playlist with ease. The sets on Saturday night features a mix of recognizable favourites, such as Thelonius Monk’s “Ugly Beauty” and original songs like “Two Across”, an upbeat and memorable bossa which shows her promise as a songwriter and lyricist.
After years of playing small parts in musical theatre and choirs, Stylianou moved to Toronto to take centre stage. While studying theatre at Ryerson, she began singing with a big band of Humber College students. Her first gig was at The Rex Hotel & Jazz and Blues Bar.
“It felt so free singing that music because one of the cornerstones of it is improvisation and self expression,” Stylianou explained. “And having all the focus on me was pretty cool. Having a whole captive audience is really cool.”
Her first album, It Never Entered My Mind…, released in January 1999, was a successful case of happenstance. What started out as a four-song demo ended up as a full-length, self-produced album. But she considers Bachelorette (December 2001), which sold out in three weeks at Sam the Record Man, to be her best. Also self-produced, the album is a mix of standards and originals.
Stylianou has solidified her career with regular performances at Top O’ The Senator, The Montreal Bistro, and The Rex Hotel & Jazz and Blues Bar, Toronto’s big three for jazz. Her current sextet is made up of some of Canada’s best jazz talent, including bassist Artie Roth, guitarist Kim Ratcliffe, pianist Nancy Walker, drummer Ted Warren, and John MacLeod, who plays trumpet and flugelhorn.
In 1997, her first year performing in Toronto, she was offered the opportunity to sing with Harry Connick Jr.’s band. In town for a show with the popular vocalist, they were looking for a club to stretch out at and Stylianou obliged. After confessing a huge crush on Connick Jr. to the audience at The Rex, Connick Jr. surprised Stylianou by joining her onstage to play piano.
She has performed at the Du Maurier and JVC jazz festivals, and headlined a sold-out jazz-FM Sound of Toronto concert. She has played in Halifax and Stratford, Ont. And is currently trying to put together a tour of Ontario.
Despite stage success and respect from her contemporaries, Stylianou still feels like she hasn’t made it. “I’ve had the good fortune to play at The Senator so frequently .. But it hasn’t lost its magic at all. It’s definitely an accomplishment, a very prestigious place to play, but as far as having made it … It feels more like home now. Not like Carnegie Hall.”
Although Stylianou would like to have a record deal, she recognizes that it rarely happens anymore, especially with the jazz music sales slumping. If nobody offers her a deal, she will produce another album on her own. “I have faith that at some point, something will happen with that. Worrying about it and gauging my value or worth against [a record deal] is totally detrimental to the creative vibe. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.”
Stylianou has encountered people who believe what she sings isn’t jazz. With so much of jazz performance made up standards and covers, how can new and original jazz still be created anymore?
“People like to not use the word jazz [for that reason],” Stylianou says. “People can say everything’s been done and nothing’s original, but I believe what we are trying to do is create good music and we’re using the vocabulary of jazz to do it.”