‘Family is family’

A father-daughter jazz duo homage to Billie Holiday, Lester Young, and the ambiguous but obvious love they had for each other

BRATTLEBORO — A father and daughter, both talented musicians and former Vermonters, are returning to Brattleboro with a concert dedicated to two the greatest musicians in all of jazz.

On Nov. 23 at 8 p.m. at its studio in the Cotton Mill, Open Music Collective presents vocalist Melissa Shetler and her father, Scott Shetler on sax, in a “Lady Day and Prez Tribute Show,” honoring singer Billie Holiday and tenor saxophonist Lester Young.

Joining the Shetlers: guitarist Rudolph Vernaz-Colas, house bassist Jamie MacDonald, and a drummer to be named.

Lady Day and Prez are the affectionate nicknames that Holiday and Young gave each other, part of the tradition of jazz royalty.

Holiday, arguably jazz's most significant singer, had a vocal style strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists - and pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo.

Young, one of the form's most influential saxophonists, in contrast to many of his hard-driving peers, played with a relaxed, cool tone and used sophisticated harmonies.

Together they made a series of seminal recordings, mainly in the late 1930s.

Young had been a boarder at Holiday's mother's house in 1934, and the two developed a rapport. Young once said, “Well, I think you can hear that on some of the old records, you know. Some time I'd sit down and listen to 'em myself, and it sounds like two of the same voices, if you don't be careful, you know, or the same mind, or something like that.”

As a horn player, Lester brought bebop into much of his soloing, Melissa Shetler is quoted as saying on Open Music Collective's website.

“But when it came to backing Billie, it was the breathy lyricism and laid-back rhythmic phrasing that always came across to me. It's as if Lester is singing the song back to her. And in return, she allows herself to take on the freedom of a horn, often avoiding stating the original melody altogether in exchange for her own emotional interpretation.”

Scott Shetler says he doesn't know the precise nature of their relationship: “I don't think they were lovers. But they clearly adored each other.”

According to Melissa, Billie Holiday and Lester Young became family: “They recognized a common expression in each other, and you can hear that in the music when they performed.” And family is the reason Melissa cites as the reason for the tribute show.

“Family is family,” she continues. “Sometimes it's the family you're born into, and sometimes it's the family you choose, but it's always family, and as such the bonds run deep. Bonded by blood, or common language, inside jokes, physical traits, and for many, shared musical experiences. There is little need to explain where you are coming from with family; it's understood.”

Melissa notes that she grew up hearing her father learn to play the saxophone. She says she would listen to him put on Lester Young albums and play along, over and over.

“I remember him for hours in the basement playing scales and even more hours on the beach with the clarinet looking for the sweetness in the tone.”

When she got older and decided to sing, she would put on Billie Holiday and try to emulate her phrasing, “the way I had heard my father do with horn players years earlier. And there was Lester right behind her. I knew the tone immediately: It was one of the first times I learned you could recognize an instrumentalist's 'voice,'” she said.

Scott's tone bears a lot of influence from Young, according to Melissa, and she says she learned how to become a jazz vocalist through soaking up Holiday:

“So here we are years later, my father and I, revisiting those voices and their dialogue, and listening for the nuance in their communication.”

As the child of two working musicians - she's performed and recorded with both - Melissa grew up exposed to a wide variety of musical styles.

Although she resolutely classifies herself a jazz singer, she is adept at singing all kinds of music. Through her travels to Mexico, Central America, South Africa, and Cuba she expanded her repertoire from the Great American Songbook to take in bossas, boleros, and township music.

“I just love to sing,” she explains.

Melissa was raised in southern Vermont and attended Guilford Elementary School.

“I'm just a country girl at heart,” she says, laughing. “This will be a homecoming concert of sorts.”

That said, she often returns to her hometown to visit her mother, who still lives here. Sometimes she even performs. In October she performed at a party in the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center for the retirement of Susan Bell, the former executive director of the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont.

“I have a connection with the project, [as] years ago I took an HIV prevention training with the good folks who work there,” Melissa explains. “It was a nice way to say thanks.”

Since moving from Brattleboro to New York, Melissa has performed all over the city, including such respected venues as Smoke, The Lenox Lounge, Swing 46, Dizzy's, Detour, and the Jazz Standard. She has performed with such greats as Seleno Clarke, Mundell Lowe, Ray Barretto, and trumpet virtuoso Jeremy Pelt.

Scott Shetler, an accomplished musician and songwriter, plays many instruments, but sees himself principally as a saxophonist. He studied at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst with legendary jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp and classical clarinetist David Kreuter.

He has toured extensively throughout Europe, Russia, and Turkey, with blues, soul, jazz and gospel artists. In the United States he's performed at Carnegie Hall with the late Gene Pitney, at the prestigious New Orleans Jazz Festival with the late Johnny Adams, and at hundreds of Red Sox games with the Hot Tamale Brass Band.

Scott's professional beginnings were in southern Vermont, playing at what he calls “a tough little bar that used to be in the Latchis Hotel,” and, before he took up sax, as a self-described mild-mannered mandolinist in the ski areas.

Although Scott plays many instruments, he wants to point out that the one thing he feels compelled to brag about is that his tone is specific to each instrument he plays.

Like his daughter, he sees himself first an foremost as a jazz artist, but he plays a wide array of musical styles, including rock, soul, and rhythm and blues.

Scott's latest gig: clarinetist in the orchestra of Sam Mendes' “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which is heading to Broadway for the 2014-15 season.

Scott also is a songwriter. One of his original compositions was featured in “Fever Pitch” (2005); another was recorded by Jon Bon Jovi. He says he's awaiting the day that he can live off those royalties.

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