A trio of vocal entertainers blending the classic and the contemporary, Duchess has charmed audiences far and wide with its beautiful musicianship and big fun at the group’s shows of “girl-on-girl harmony,” as the three so saucily put it. Or as the Wall Street Journal said: “They understand that swinging music goes hand in hand with an audacious sense of humor.” The New York-based threesome of Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner and Melissa Stylianou channel the inspiration of vintage jazz vocal trios into an entertaining package that’s utterly up-to-date, marked as it is by evergreen swing, sweet-toned harmonies and a stage presence that has proved irresistible to audiences from coast to coast, as well as across Canada and even in Israel. DownBeat dubbed the trio “a beacon of jovial esprit,” while New York City Jazz Record praised Duchess’s live performances for their “spot-on harmonies,” the singers “phrasing seamlessly like a big-band horn section.” Anzic Records will released the trio’s second album, Laughing at Life, on Feb. 10, 2017, of which Downbeat Magazine said: “For a good time, call Duchess.”
Laughing at Life was produced by arranger Oded Lev-Ari, who also helmed Duchess as well as acclaimed Anzic solo releases by Cervini and Stylianou (as well as Anat Cohen and The 3 Cohens). The new album features beloved songs by Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington and Ray Charles, plus a brace of lesser-known numbers given the infectious Duchess spin. The singers are joined by a rhythm section of pianist Michael Cabe, bassist Matt Aronoff and drummer Jared Schonig, along with saxophonist Jeff Lederer and guitarist Jesse Lewis. The album also features two kindred-spirit guest stars: Anat Cohen (clarinet) and Wycliffe Gordon (trombone, vocals). Highlights include a finger-snapping take on the famous Billie Holiday/Count Basie number “Swing Brother Swing!” The band grooves beautifully behind the singers in “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” while Cole Porter’s ballad “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” comes to life thanks to the sheer purity of the Duchess vocal weave. Inspired from the start by virtuosic 1930s trio the Boswell Sisters, Duchess also presents the previously unrecorded “Dawn,” a mellifluous song co-written decades ago by Vet Boswell (youngest of the Boswell Sisters). As a big fan of Duchess and its updating of the Boswells sound, Vet’s granddaughter even sent the trio stage gloves worn by the sisters.
The Boswell Sisters, from New Orleans, made pioneering close-harmony records for Brunswick in the Thirties that remain a prize in the jazz canon. “The Boswell Sisters were such originals,” Gardner explains. “This kind of music got more conservative in the 1940s, with the Andrews Sisters taking the vocal trio format more mainstream, even though 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.”