SHE’S TALL AND LEAN, BUT
NOT FROM IPANEMA
An 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
What is your musical
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
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
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
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
Could you talk about your
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
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
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
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