VOCALIST MELISSA STYLIANOU JOINS GUITAR MASTER GENE BERTONCINI AND VIRTUOSO BASSIST IKE STURM FOR DREAM DANCING
A MARVELOUSLY INTIMATE TRIO ENCOUNTER BETWEEN AN ELDER STATESMAN AND TWO GIFTED MENTEES, ALL DEAREST OF FRIENDS
Release Date: June 17th, 2022 on Anzic Records
“Listening to this entire exceptional program is pure joy!” — Rufus Reid
“Melissa has it all — a gorgeous instrument, superb musicianship and great taste.” — Fred Hersch
“Bertoncini enfolds [melodies] in capacious six-string chords and contrary-motion harmony … using the whole range of the guitar.” — Ben Ratliff
Melissa Stylianou, accomplished vocalist and one-third of the powerhouse vocal jazz trio Duchess, is proud to announce the long-awaited debut of a project near to her heart: an intimate trio with sought-after bassist and composer Ike Sturm (one-half of the acclaimed ambient acoustic duo Endless Field) and the great nylon-string jazz guitar legend Gene Bertoncini. Dream Dancing is a riveting document of the trio’s effortless rapport as they explore well-loved standards and a moving Bertoncini original, “For Chet” (an homage to the guitarist’s onetime employer, Chet Baker).
It was Sturm, longtime Music Director for the Jazz Ministry at St. Peter’s Church (and son of the late jazz composer, arranger and educator Fred Sturm), who facilitated the first meeting of Stylianou and Bertoncini, roughly 2008. “When I first met Gene we played ‘My One and Only Love,’ it was the very first thing after ‘hello,’” the singer recalls. “That moment changed my life. I didn’t yet know about Gene accompanying my vocal heroes like Nancy Wilson, or recording with Wayne Shorter, or playing with Benny Goodman. I just knew I was in the middle of something special. Gene looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and laid out this gorgeous harmony for me to sing over and inside, listening for my phrasing and making it seem like we were co-creators of that song, right then and there. It feels that way every time we play a ballad that we both love. It’s the best feeling in the world, like a dream. I knew that day I had found a generous master to learn from, a kindred spirit in melody, someone I now call family.”
“Gene is so at home with these tunes,” says Sturm. “He’s lived them for a long time. And he’s still creating, he’s working on a new tune now. For weeks or months he’s dialing into these tunes and unearthing literally brand new sounds for him at age 84, reaching for the highest level at all times. These songs that we get access to have been developing within him for decades. In terms of playing, it’s a fine balance between something that’s curated and designed — in fact, Gene trained as an architect in college, so he really is an architect of these arrangements — and the complete freedom that happens in the moment, allowing us to come together in this new way every single time. It’s not just, ‘We’ll see what happens.’ It is that, but it’s a freedom that’s only possible after Gene has done all this homework and poured his heart into it.”
“I feel like I can’t play anything wrong with this group,” adds Bertoncini. “There’s no tension or pressure, and I can’t wait for the next time we play. And Melissa! I have such respect for this lady’s musicianship — you can play the weirdest chord behind her and she’s right on it, never gets lost, she’s so creative. She’s a treasure.”
On “For Chet” one can hear Stylianou and Sturm channel the feeling Bertoncini strives to evoke in memory of the trumpet great. “I worked with Chet and he never played a note he didn’t mean,” says the guitarist. “I strive for that, too. I also like to play the melody as it was written, which is simply one of the most beautiful things you can do.”
For Sturm, the connection with Bertoncini goes back some 30 years and is close as family. “I met Gene when I was 15,” the bassist recounts. “My dad loved Gene and brought him up to Eastman. He even wrote a string quartet for Gene. I took a lesson with him and loved hearing all his stories and jokes. I went to see him play in Rochester at little local hangs, and he’d always encourage people, have them sit in for one song. One thing led to another and Gene and I were playing all the time in New York, duo stuff and other groups, playing at the Kitano. I brought him over to St Peter’s and we honored him with a big celebration.”
On Dream Dancing, the blend of nylon-string and upright bass recalls Bertoncini’s magical bond with bassist Michael Moore, one of Sturm’s heroes. The unadorned beauty and intimacy of acoustic instruments is also a central focus of Endless Field, Sturm’s duo with guitarist Jesse Lewis, which released an eponymous debut in 2017 and the follow-up Alive in the Wilderness in 2020 (“pastoral acoustic bliss” — NPR). It all stems from the early imprint that Bertoncini left on Sturm as a young listener. “I remember we would do this camp with Gene in Wisconsin, and it was a parallel to what this trio is about, around the fire, sitting very close, listening to Gene play with another mentor of ours, John Harmon, a great piano player. Just seeing the relationships and how they all came together, listening to Gene’s sound on the instrument. When I approach my bass, the sound I’ll forever have in my head is Gene’s ethereal touch on the nylon-string guitar. I’m reaching for that. It’s very deep, it’s a part of me.”
Among the songs on Dream Dancing is “My Ideal,” arranged by Stylianou, with a rubato guitar intro, a guitar-voice duo passage, a beautiful solo turn from Sturm and a surprise interpolation of the bridge from “The Man I Love” that fits lyrically hand in glove. There’s a satisfying double dose of Ellingtonia in Juan Tizol’s “Perdido” and Mercer Ellington’s “Time’s a Wastin’” (better known as “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”). The latter, as well as “It Could Happen to You,” are bass and vocal duets, reflecting years of trust developed between Sturm and Stylianou as duo partners (and bandmates in Sturm’s ensemble project Heart).
Two Jobim songs, “Corcovado” and “If You Never Come to Me” (a.k.a. “Inútil Paisagem), find Stylianou inhabiting lyrics in Portuguese and English, sculpting phrases and taking inspiration at every turn from her bandmates. “Gene and I have this elastic thing, it’s so fun,” Sturm says. “He can go anywhere, it’s just bananas what Gene can do. But Melissa will somehow thread it together and dance around it and make sense of the crazy stuff that we throw at her.” “Vocal parkour!” Stylianou interjects.
For such a compact configuration, the Dream Dancing trio gets a remarkably lush and full sound, as the closing Rodgers & Hammerstein classic “It Might As Well Be Spring” attests. Stylianou cites Bertoncini’s fresh and inventive chord voicings as a key element of the trio’s approach, which the guitarist calls “spontaneous and yet formal”: “I like to bring out not only the orchestral qualities,
but also the linear aspects of the string, like you do with a string section. You can create a line behind the melody and that’s what I do behind Melissa, spontaneously as she’s singing the song. Also, I like to play what I can sing. The more I listen, the more I can sing.”
“Every time we play it’s different,” Stylianou remarks. “So beautiful, with so much space. I love playing with big groups, intense music, there’s a lot of energy there. But I also love the space and intimate communication of these settings. It’s not just about guitar and bass, though, it’s these guys. Ike and Gene have this incredible bond and we all have a very playful way of doing music.
We lean into that. Dream Dancing feels right because we find ourselves listening and being spontaneous to such a degree that we end up taking turns ‘leading and following’ in the dance.”
Over his long career, Gene Bertoncini has honed a singular conception as a nylon-string jazz guitarist in a wide range of settings from solo and duo to string quartet. A prolific and popular studio musician, he honed his professional chops as a member of the Tonight Show Band during Johnny Carson’s tenure. He’s been heard with an extraordinary range of greats including Benny Goodman, Buddy Rich, Wayne Shorter, Hubert Laws, Paul Desmond, Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Nancy Wilson, Vic Damone and Eydie Gormé. He is currently preparing an album of duos with musical luminaries including Bill Charlap, Jeff Hamilton and Alan Bergman. [Additional details per Gene?]
Melissa Stylianou has distinguished herself on five albums as a leader to date, as well as four outings with the infectious close-harmony vocal trio Duchess, featuring sisters-in-arms Amy Cervini and Hilary Gardner. She’s made many top festival and club appearances and toured internationally, sharing her original compositions and lyrics, interpreting songwriters like Paul Simon, James Taylor and Björk, and finding unique and personal ways to present oft-sung jazz standards. She is also the vocalist in Ike Sturm’s group Heart, which is preparing an album release in the near future.
Ike Sturm is a sought-after bassist with credits including Theo Bleckmann, Ingrid Jensen, Donny McCaslin, Bobby McFerrin, Ben Monder, Maria Schneider and Kenny Wheeler. His Endless Field duo with guitarist Jesse Lewis has released two acclaimed albums to date. His new ensemble Heart will release its debut recording in 2022. Sturm has also played on several releases by Steve Reich on Canteloupe and Nonesuch Records, and has performed with Alarm Will Sound and the International Contemporary Ensemble, along with numerous creative ensembles in New York. His own inspired albums include Shelter of Trees, Spirit, and Jazz Mass (for voices, strings and jazz ensemble, featuring GRAMMY-nominated tenor soloist Donny McCaslin).