Mary Ellen Desmond and Meg Clifton: The Dynamic Philadelphia Songstress Duo
“ The music community is very important -- it's a family in itself. When you're up there doing a gig, it's a family. ”
In the jazz arena, as is all too often true in opera as well, vocalists, despite their sometimes fine voices and charisma, often lack true musicianship. This shortcoming is so pervasive, that we no longer expect such musical fine-tuning from them. Billie Holiday and the opera diva Beverly Sills were two great exceptions to the rule. Their style, their precision, their care with interpretation marked them as musicians, not just singers as such. There are others, of course Sarah Vaughan, Irene Kral, and Johnny Hartman immediately come to mind- but not very many, who meet these criteria.
In Philadelphia, we're fortunate to have two jazz vocalists who are not only exciting performers but fine musicians from whom the listener can always count on not having his or her ears offended, but rather encountering music as a craft as well as stirring vocal expressiveness. Mary Ellen Desmond and Meg Clifton are jazz singers who each work regularly in the Philadelphia area, nationally, and internationally. On account of their consummate musical skill, they attract the best musicians to accompany them. In 2002, they were induced by agent Alan McMahon to co-create a Tribute to Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney, both of whom passed away that year. (For more information about their work and the Tribute CD, visit www.mcmahonmusic.com .) The venture led to a CD and many jazz festival and nightclub gigs, and they expanded their co-performing repertoire to include swing and "The Great American Songbook." I've reviewed their Tribute CD on this website, as well as a recent performance at the Chadds Ford Wine and Jazz Festival.
When jazz musicians pay serious attention to nuances and the elements of the craft, they often have something worthwhile to say regarding jazz artistry. Moreover, I've never had an extended conversation with a vocalist, although my CD collection includes a multitude of vocal recordings. So I asked Mary Ellen and Meg if they would do a joint interview with me, and with their typical "lightness of being," they happily accepted.
AAJ: For a warmup, let's do the infamous desert island question: Which recordings would you take with you to that desert island?
Mary Ellen Desmond: We could be here for an hour and a half!!!!
AAJ: Well, I mean the recordings that are really the most precious to you.
Meg Clifton: Ella Fitzgerald Ella in Rome: The Birthday Concert. Miles Smiles. A band called XTC their album called Nonesuch. It's British pop rock. They write their own songs. They're excellent. Joe Williams: Live in Birdland. Betty Carter: Inside Betty Carter.
MED: The Marriage of Figaro.
AAJ: That's a surprise, but I do know that you sing opera on occasion.
MED: On the jazz side, Carmen McRae sings Thelonious Monk. I would also take an Elvis Costello recording. Anything from the 1980's, or his latest CD.
AAJ: Does my memory serve me correctly that there are some songs of his that you like to sing?
MED: Just one: Almost Blue. And then I would take Ella Swings Lightly with the Marty Paich Orchestra. And Karrin Allyson: From Paris to Rio.
MC: I'd like to add something by the composer Morton Feldman. He does piano and strings, some vocal pieces. Really stretching and experimental, testing the instrument itself.
MED: The Coleman Hawkins Quartet: Then and Now.
AAJ: Who are a few of your favorite vocalists?
MC: My two favorite jazz vocalists are Betty Carter and Joe Williams. Among the more contemporary singers, there's Cassandra Wilson.
AAJ: Meg, you have a very striking singing voice. Is there any singer who is an inspiration for your voice?
MC: Betty Carter. She's incredible.
MED: For myself, I'd have to say Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. They're the first two that I really listened to in depth. Also, Karryn Allyson is contemporary and very broad with her genres she's done jazz treatments of rock tunes and sings in different languages. In the Paris to Rio recording she sings in French and Portuguese. Sheila Jordan. And June Christy.
MC: You know how to pick 'em, girl.
AAJ: Who are some of the most supportive people in your life?
MC: My family, of course. They helped me get into music. My dad played a lot of music he played piano, played recordings, a big inspiration. My boyfriend is very important. The music community is very important it's a family in itself. When you're up there doing a gig, it's a family. And if they really like you, they'll do a gig with you even if it doesn't pay a lot, just because it's you. You're not blood related, but it's a family thing. Every one in the jazz scene is very supportive of one another- and we all want to see each other succeed. Of course, Mary Ellen is a part of that family, for me.
MED: I'd have to agree with Meg about the community of musicians and their support. I feel blessed to be in a career where the communication is so intimate. When you're on the bandstand and you're creating the tune and the moment, it's a very intimate thing. There's nothing else like it.