A close-harmony vocal trio blending the classic and the contemporary, Duchess--Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner, and Melissa Stylianou--has rightly earned a reputation for beautiful singing and big fun onstage. The New York City-based threesome debuted on record with the eponymous Duchess (Anzic Records) in 2015. Featuring arrangements by producer/Anzic co-founder Oded Lev-Ari, the album channeled the 1930s inspiration of the virtuosic Boswell Sisters into a wonderfully entertaining package, brimming with sure-footed swing, sweet-toned harmony, and ever-insouciant charm.
The trio’s sophomore album, Laughing at Life (Anzic Records), also produced and arranged by Lev-Ari, was released in 2017. The album featured thoughtful renderings of venerable jazz standards as well as playful reimaginings of novelty songs made famous by the Boswell and Andrews Sisters. Rave reviews ensued, including Downbeat Magazine’s declaration, “For a good time, call Duchess.” Never ones to rest on their laurels, Duchess released a holiday EP, Harmony for the Holidays, in 2018, and their much-anticipated live album is slated for release in 2020.
New Orleans’ Boswell Sisters, whose pioneering close-harmony trio records for Brunswick in the 1930s remain prized in the jazz canon, are the historic muses for the Duchess sound and approach. “The Boswell Sisters were such originals,” Hilary explains. “This kind of music got more conservative a decade later in the 1940s, with the Andrews Sisters taking the vocal trio format more mainstream, although they were swinging and super-tight in their own way. But the Boswell Sisters had a kind of instrumental approach to harmony singing, and there was a wildness to what they did, with abrupt tempo changes, crazy harmonies and ensemble scatting as if they were singing from one brain. We love them. That said, we’re not doing re-creations at all. Our voices, personalities and 21st-century sensibilities help impart individuality to what we’re doing. We’re making these songs our own, naturally.”
Melissa recalls how Duchess initially got together: “Hilary and I had each sung with Amy in various situations, developing a real rapport with her. Back in 2013, the three of us teamed up for the first time to sing some Boswell Sisters and Andrew Sisters charts at the 55 Bar, and it went over amazingly well.”
Amy points out that it was her husband, producer/arranger Oded Lev-Ari, who suggested that the three women sing together, adding: “It went so well when we sang those stock Boswell Sisters and Andrew Sisters charts, that Oded was inspired to write custom arrangements for us. His arrangements are tailored for our voices, with this playful, imaginative correspondence between the history of this sort of music and our individual, contemporary sensibilities.”
As “Charlie” to their “Angels,” Lev-Ari has honed his arranging for Duchess, armed with the group’s ever-increasing rapport. “There is a tradition in big-band composition – particularly with Duke Ellington – that emphasizes writing for the individual playing the instrument, not necessarily for the instrument itself,” the producer says. “Getting to know the three voices and their range of colors has allowed me to do that with Duchess. I can hear what a specific note would sound like when Melissa sings it versus Amy or Hilary. They’re so in tune with one another that it allows us to explore and experiment even while maintaining that great sound and vibe.”
In the intervening years since their first 55 bar gig, Duchess has performed at major festivals and esteemed jazz clubs throughout the United States (Monterey Jazz Festival, Rochester Jazz Festival, Saratoga Jazz Festival, Jazz at Lincoln Center), Canada (Toronto Jazz Festival, Ottawa Jazz Festival), Europe (Copenhagen Jazz Festival, Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival), and Israel (Jerusalem Jazz Festival). In 2017, Duchess performed at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, singing the music of the Andrews Sisters for Taylor’s seminal piece, “Company B.” The trio’s collaboration with the Paul Taylor Dance Company continues with a run of shows at Lincoln Center this fall.
About the magical stage rapport among the three singers, Amy adds: “The chemistry with the three of us was special from the beginning – the sort of chemistry you can’t predict and which doesn’t happen very often. Duchess is all about combining swinging with fun. There can be a fine line between entertaining and schtick, but we take care to fall on the right side of that. It’s serious fun, in that we take the music seriously but not ourselves.”
And Melissa shares a story about one of the best responses to the Duchess sound and sensibility: “It was from a musician, a vibes player who had a set after us at the 55 Bar. He came up to us and said, ‘You know, the audience doesn’t realize how difficult what you’re doing really is. They’re having too good of a time’.”