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SHE’S TALL AND LEAN, BUT NOT FROM IPANEMA

 

picture - Melissa MorganAn Interview with jazz singer Melissa Morgan

Interview by William Gooch

published June 12, 2009

 

Swaying and singing soulfully to the bossa nova rhythms of music from Mania de Carnaval—better known in the States as Black Orpheus—Melissa Morgan has the tan, svelte look of chanteuses who entice us with tales of tropical sensuality and seduction. However, this olive-toned beauty is not from Rio, Salvador de Bahia, nor does she roll her tongue in a Portuguese patois.

 

On June 3, when I caught Melissa Morgan and her trio at NYC’s jazz hotspot, the Jazz Standard, I was impressed with her musicality and her ability to lyrically express the emotions of tunes that ranged from Dinah Washington’s “What a Difference a Day Makes,” “Skylark” or rarely recorded standards from her new CD, “Until I Met You.”  With a vocal sound that combines the qualities of the iconic Peggy Lee, Esther Phillips and Abbey Lincoln, this tall and sexy Jersey girl is destined to carve her niche in the music industry.

 

After her last set, Ms. Morgan graciously talked with me about her love of jazz, her love of adventure, and her love of life.

 

 

What is your musical background?

 

Melissa Morgan: I started playing piano when I was four. I was a very shy child. People who have known me for years are shocked to see me get on stage and do anything. I got into choral music in junior high school and traveled with some honor bands. I started training in opera in high school and my sojourn into jazz started my last couple of years in high school.

 

What were your early musical influences?

 

Melissa Morgan: I would listen to whatever my father listened to, which ranged from Anita Baker to Anne Murray to Placido Domingo. In high school I dove into Billie Holiday and John Coltrane, which had such an emotional impact on me.

 

Did this love of jazz influence in choosing to attend SUNY Purchase?

 

Melissa Morgan: Yes, it did. Actually, I auditioned for both classical and jazz music departments at Purchase. I got accepted into both and choose jazz as a last minute instinct.

 

Why did you switch from classical music to jazz?

 

Melissa Morgan: I like the community. I feel the music is more about rejoicing and connecting to other people. It seems more organic. Also, I love the spontaneity.

 

You studied with some great jazz artists while at Purchase.  How has that experience influenced your singing?

 

Melissa Morgan: I learned at Purchase to listen, listen, and listen more. That is the best musical lesson you can learn. Listen to live music, listen to the other musicians in your band, listen to other singers, and watch how other singers lead bands. By listening to all this music you can find your own voice. It is a very interesting process. By studying and listen to everything, the music becomes a part of you.

 

How would you describe your style of singing?

 

Melissa Morgan: I call my style of singing soul pocket swing, which is a really soulful groove that you can sit in or jump out of. It is a very simple thing; either you feel or you don’t.

 

Could you talk about your band?

 

Melissa Morgan: The first guy in my band that I met was pianist Rick Germanson, who I met at the club Smoke in Harlem. I would sit in on jam sessions, and Rick was so welcoming and supportive of me. Eventually, I formed a trio with Rick, Jon Flaugher (bass) and Brian Floody (drums) and got a regular gig at Smoke.  We worked well together because we all liked and listened to the same music, and we understood how to support each other. Brian Floody encouraged me to enter the Thelonius Monk International Jazz Competition.

 

Could you talk about the Thelonius Monk International Jazz Competition where you were a semi-finalist?

 

Melissa Morgan: At the time, I hated the idea of music competitions; it didn’t make sense to me. Anyway, Brian Floody called me up and told me that I should do the Thelonius Monk Jazz Competition because it was a vocalist year. I really wasn’t into it, but Floody persuaded me to do it. We rented a studio and recorded some songs and I ended up in the semi-finals. The Thelonius Monk Jazz Competition is really like the Academy Awards of jazz. Everybody is there, people like Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock; lots of record labels are represented there as well. I was overwhelmed and not prepared for this competition. But some good things came out of it for me. I met Chris Dunn there and he was influential in bringing me out to LA, where I signed with my current label, Telarc Records.

 

You recently moved from NYC to LA, why the move?

 

Melissa Morgan: It took me a while to realize how important it is have a presence on both coasts. If you have a gig in NYC you don’t want to have fly your LA trio or band all the way to NYC for just a couple of gigs. It’s not cost effective. You need to have musicians you can work with on both coasts. Now, I have a really great network of musicians in NYC and LA.

 

Could you talk about your CD, “Until I Met You,” that just dropped in April?

 

Melissa Morgan:  We recorded “Until I Met You” in May of 2007. I financed it on my own by taking a loan out, maxing credit cards, and whatever I had to do to raise the money. I was so ridiculously broke, but I did it!! (Jubilant laughter) There are some popular standards and some old rare standards that haven’t been recorded in a decades. I wanted to find songs that resonated with me. We did about six years of research finding these seldom-done songs.

 

There are two tunes, “I Just Stopped By to Say Hello” and “I Wonder,” that are the most heart-wrenching, lyrical tunes I’ve ever heard. We wanted our fans to hear rare gems that they had never heard before.

 

There is a famous R&B singer with your same name, although I believe she spells it differently. For professional reasons, have you ever thought of changing your name?

 

Melissa Morgan: Absolutely not. Melissa Morgan is my name and that is how it stays. When my mother named me, she had no idea about that other woman! [Raucous laughter]

 

OK, on that note, what’s next for you, the jazz singer Melissa Morgan, not the R&B singer, Meli’sa Morgan?

 

Melissa Morgan: My band and I are off to Seattle to play at the Jazz Alley, and we are in the process of booking a tour of Japan.

 

williamgooch @ stageandcinema.com

 

 

 
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