Melissa Stylianou’s Silent Movie is a pristine, well-produced, beautifully performed record – and that’s the problem. Indeed, that’s the problem with a lot of today’s vocal jazz artists. The incessant focus on tradition, on getting things “right,” typically obstructs any emotional journey the singer can take with a piece and performances feel more like aerobics than connections.
Make no mistake about it, Stylianou can sing. The Brooklyn resident certainly has the musical pedigree, having performed a five-year-long Friday night gig at the Rex Hotel in Toronto and a run over three years at the 55 Bar in New York.
Silent Movie is the Toronto native’s fourth release. It features Stylianou’s interpretations of songs by Johnny Cash, James Taylor, Paul Simon, and even Joanna Newsom. There are some original pieces, too, including the title track. “Silent Movie” was co-written by Stylianou along with her husband (and piano player) Jamie Reynolds.
Playing along with Reynolds and Stylianou is a band of precise performers, including guitarist Pete McCann, bassist Gary Wang and drummer Rodney Green.
What we have with Silent Movie is a perfectly beautiful, nice album. Stylianou’s enunciation is elegant and her tone is soft and tantalizing.
The trouble is that she can be too delicate at times, which generates a sort of emotional void that really stands out when she sings songs like “Today, I Sing the Blues.” The track is too withdrawn and gentle. Stylianou hits all the right notes, but it is in no way believable that she’s singing the blues. McCann’s guitar matches the tone well, but it feels like the outfit is holding back.
The same is true for Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone.” Stylianou’s tone is quite attractive, but it’s too perfect for this sort of song. She is too defined in her approach and the song lacks heart and grit. While there’s certainly something to be said for someone’s own reading, there’s also something to be said for the ache and hurt locked within a Johnny Cash song. Stylianou seems to have the key, now she needs to turn it in the lock.
“Moon River,” a song that has been done to death in the vocal jazz empire, makes its appearance at the end of Silent Movie. It is a predictable rendering, sadly, and Stylianou doesn’t bear the despondency of the piece.
Jazz vocal legends like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday didn’t reach the pinnacle of the genre because they were perfect vocalists; they became legendary because they unloaded everything into what they sang. Flawlessness was immaterial, for magnificence was found in the defects and in laying their goddamn souls bare.
For Melissa Stylianou, the vocal prowess is certainly intact. The passion and heart has to follow.