Mary Ellen Desmond and Meg Clifton: The Dynamic Philadelphia Songstress Duo
MC: I don't know whether it's a challenge or not. Maybe some don't wanna play in different keys or deal with the stereotypical vocalist who might not have his or her charts together, or might not know when to come in. I'm very big on that with my students if you're going to be a vocalist, you need to have those things together. You need to know your songs, when to come in. Unfortunately, there's that stereotype that the vocalist doesn't know her music.
MED: Some of the guys worry that the vocalist is going to put herself on a pedestal and not give them enough opportunity to do their thing. For me, I certainly don't try to dominate over the musicians.
MC: I think we're both the same way. When we're up there, it's an ensemble. I bring my stand and microphone back so I stand in the same line with them, and we're a group. I make eye contact, and I'm not different from them we're all making music together.
MED: The musicians we work with know that. And therefore it all comes together as an equal exchange.
AAJ: Do the guys have particular tunes they like to do with you?
MC: We have several specific "books" of music. The Rosemary Clooney-Peggy Lee Tribute; The American Songbook; etc. We kinda psych it out with each other. We sort it out together.
MED: They each have their own preferences. Like Steve Myerson (pianist) loves "Cheek to Cheek." Tom Lawton likes almost any tune his thing is that he loves to play in the key of A. If I can, I try to transpose a tune to A, and he loves it! I try to remember tunes and tastes of the musicians. Sometimes, I'll let them choose the tunes. It should be an equal footing.
AAJ: In my review of your sets at Chadds Ford, I pointed out that you really created a feeling of an ensemble. But to change the subject, how come the two of you don't do more scat and vocalise (singing transcripts of instrumental solos)?
MED: For me, I used to be terrified of scat, but I've grown more comfortable with it. I actually went to a jazz vocal camp in Chicago for that reason, which got me over that fear. Nowadays, it depends mostly on the venue and the musicians I'm working with. It has to feel like the right situation. It's intuitive and has to happen spontaneously.
MC: I do improvise, and it does depend on the venue, and sometimes it just doesn't feel like the right time and place. There are gigs where I'll improvise on every set, and there are gigs where I just don't. I'm working on it in my daily practice routine, and eventually I may get into doing it more often. I want to improvise more and more, and being able to trade fours and eights with the drummer and the sax, and so on. It's a process. You know, I work a lot with vibraphonist Tony Micelli, and he's a great support to me improvising.
AAJ: It would seem that vibes and female singing are a great and not very often utilized combination.
MC: I work a lot with Tony at the Philadelphia Museum of Art concerts. We'll be doing some new things with rock tunes with a jazz twist.
AAJ: Do either of you write music and/or lyrics of your own?
MC: I'm working on that now. I'm trying to get up the nerve to actually do them in public!
AAJ: It takes a certain courage.
MED: I've written some lyrics. I wrote my own lyrics to the tune "How About You?" Strangely enough, I wrote it while waiting in a doctor's office. I was very nervous when I sang it. But people liked it. It was a thrill, adding lyrics to an established tune.
AAJ: What projects are coming up for you in the next months individually and together?
MED: In April, 2005, we're at the Sellersville Theater again. Alan McMahon is working on signing us up for a jazz festival in Florida.
MC: I'm working on my first solo CD, called You're a Sweetheart with Lee Smith on bass, Dan Monaghan on drums, Peter Bernstein on guitar, John Swana on trumpet, and Eric Alexander on sax.
AAJ: No piano. Hmm, that's interesting.
MC: We're using the guitar instead. It's been a great experience to record it, and it's being mastered, and soon will be released. I have some gigs at the (Philadelphia) Art Museum, and at Chris'.
MED: I'm going back to Japan, to perform at three of the clubs I did last time, and possibly a new one. I'm also talking with an agent in Tokyo who books people into resorts. I'm studying Japanese. Like, Meg, I'd like to do another solo CD. And Meg and I are going to do another project together we're brainstorming it right now.
AAJ: What are some of your longer term dreams?
MED: I sometimes think of doing an educational talk show interviewing creative artists and musicians. Musically, I'd love to perform with Karryn Allyson if the occasion arises. Meg and I would, of course love to get the Tribute CD picked up by a major record label. I would like to see both of us get signed by a big label.
MC: I would also love to see me writing songs and doing a CD of them.
AAJ: Are there any particular musicians you'd like to work with?