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Duchess: “Girl-on-girl harmony” in a very easy to enjoy show (review)

Duchess
Great Canadian Jazz Series
Ottawa Jazz Festival
Confederation Park
Saturday, June 20, 2015 – 6:30 p.m.

There was a time when jazz didn't take itself too seriously.You went to a jazz show to have fun, to dance, to get cheered up.

The vocal trio Duchess – Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner, and Melissa Stylianou – did its damnedest to bring back that era at its Ottawa Jazz Festival concert Saturday. Supported by a strong rhythm section, they sang cheerful jazz standards in tight harmony, in a show that was very easy to enjoy.

“Girl-on-girl harmony” is how the trio describes its music, and a great deal of it was sung in unison. They alternated verses and even lines, and their voices melded well as they celebrated the songs – which were mostly from the 1930s to 50s, and which they described as “timeless”. They followed that theme through by dressing similarly – though not identically – in well-cut, blue polka-dot dresses in a distinctly retro style.

Cervini and Stylianou are from Canada; Gardner is from Alaska. All three now live in New York City. Almost all the numbers they sang in Ottawa were from their debut album released this spring, which was produced and arranged by Cervini's husband and long-time collaborator, Oded Lev-Ari, who was watching the concert from the park.

"Duchess' repertoire isn't “serious” or “important” but it was clear that they'd spent a lot of time and effort getting it to click just right and sound good."

On the album, the trio is backed by well-known NYC musicians, including drummer Matt Wilson, saxophonist Jeff Lederer, and pianist Michael Cabe. For this tour, they included Cabe but replaced the others with a Toronto contingent: drummer Ernesto Cervini (Amy's brother) and bassist Dan Fortin. All three members of the rhythm section added considerable sparkle and vim to the music.

The Peggy Lee number, “Love Being Here with You”, opened the show. The trio personalized it to Ottawa and to their group, and clearly did their best to involve the audience right away. “There Ain't No Sweet Man that's Worth the Salt of My Tears” followed: a sassy number with a bit of an old-time feel, which Cabe underlined with rippling piano.

Then the trio made fun of their whole genre, with “Blah, Blah, Blah” by George and Ira Gershwin. It's an undeservedly-lesser-known song whose lyrics pull out every cliché from Tin Pan Alley and mock them, and the three vocalists sang it sweetly and just a little bit ironically.

Doris Day had a huge hit with “Que Sera Sera”, and featured it in two of her movies, but I've rarely heard it sung recently. Duchess gave it a wistful, heartfelt treatment, with Cervini and Gardner taking the verses and all three sharing the chorus, and Fortin adding a slow, thoughtful bass solo. The audience strongly applauded at the end.

Probably the best known female jazz vocal trio was The Andrews Sisters, and Duchess paid tribute to them with the WWII number “Three Little Sisters”. The vocalists introduced the song with a kazoo chorus followed by tight ensemble singing, and then added an energetic, straight-ahead tenor sax solo by jazzfest programming manager Petr Cancura, whom they invited up for several numbers.

They noted, however, that their real influence was the earlier Boswell Sisters, who introduced this style of singing with a string of hits in the 1930s, and sang one of their numbers, “Heebie Jeebies”, with Cervini giving one of the verses a slinky, bluesy rendition.

Other concert highlights included “A Doodlin' Song”, featuring a rough-edged tenor solo and infectious piano solos, and an only-partially-successful attempt to get the audience to sing along; and the snarky dating advice in “It's a Man!” The show ended with the upbeat “Lollipop”, sung with smiles and bright rhythm.

Duchess' repertoire isn't “serious” or “important” but it was clear that they'd spent a lot of time and effort getting it to click just right and sound good. They kept the show interesting by changing tempos and styles frequently, and telling stories. But the show wasn't too smooth; the trio sounded natural and enthusiastic about their repertoire – and the audience reacted happily to that enthusiasm.

The Ottawa show was the first stop of a short tour – and their first festival exposure – for the group. They'll also be playing the Toronto Jazz Festival (June 25), the Rochester Int'l Jazz Festival (June 26), the Saratoga Jazz Festival (June 27), and The RegattaBar in Boston on June 23. If they put as much vim and warmth and jazz sensibility into those shows as they did in Ottawa they should be a hit there too.

   – Alayne McGregor

Note: OttawaJazzScene.ca received review access to the Ottawa Jazz Festival but was denied access for our photojournalist, Brett Delmage. Therefore we are unable to publish photos with this review.

Set List

1. I Love Being Here with You (Peggy Lee, Bill Schluger)
2. There Ain't No Sweet Man that's Worth the Salt of My Tears (Fred Fisher)
3. Blah, Blah, Blah (George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin)
4. Que Sera, Sera (Jay Livingston, Ray Evans)
5. Three Little Sisters (Irving Taylor / Vic Mizzy)
6. Heebie Jeebies (Boyd Atkins)
7. Hummin' to Myself (Sammy Fain, Herb Magidson, Monty Siegel)
8. My Brooklyn Love Song (Ramey Idriss, George Tibbles)
9. A Doodlin' Song (Cy Coleman, Carolyn Leigh)
10. It's a Man (Cy Coben)
11. A Little Jive Is Good for You (Ralph Yaw)
12. Lollipop (Beverly Ross, Julius Dixon)