Photo courtesy of Gregg Segal / It’s Alive! Media & Management
Daring Sparrow Entertainment
The Buddhists say the biggest changes in the universe occur between the hours of 2 and 4am and indeed, most of the births and deaths in the world happen between those hours. Singer/songwriter Melissa Sullivan admits inspiration indeed does happen for her in the dead of night and considering her debut album is titled Late Last Night, once again the universe seems to have prevailed.
A few centuries ago during the emergence of those ancient now-historic golden days of my generation's cutting-edge music, I was Talent Coordinator for the prolific and revolutionary Troubadour folk-rock nightclubs in LA and San Francisco. There I would regularly get about 90 or 100 submissions each week from unknown musical talent who, against all odds, were desperately seeking to play the Troub, one of the country’s most established venues for discovering and nurturing new talent.
I would hear some incredible tunes and precision musicianship, most of which I had to pass on simply because I could only book so many fledgling artists, who usually were chosen to open for more established stars. What struck me most and always made me stop and listen a second time was someone or some group who brought something new and innovative to the scene, artists who created music that was not only well played but showed me a direction I'd never heard before and was obviously something unique to them alone.
Despite the considerably welcome ducats my unexpected sidetrack of a career lavished upon my youthful desire for champagne wishes and caviar dreams, I ran screaming after 13 breakneck superstoned years in the music business, an entity so ruthless and fickle it even made the old hardhearted Hollywood system seem charitable in comparion. Still, many people who actually remember my early entrepreneurial success continue to come to me with their music to get an opinion.
I especially shudder at this notion when it’s a friend offering their heartfelt and hard come-by wares for me to evaluate but even then, although I discovered and helped some of the world’s greatest and most enduring musical artists achieve success a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I consider myself a more reliable and knowledgeable reviewer of theatre and actors than I am able to knowledgeably offer critiques of musical endeavors.
I knew my generous and extraordinarily talented friend Melissa Sullivan, a longtime colleague at New York Film Academy, was working on an album of her music, but I had never heard her sing despite several invitations over the years to hear her in performance whenever she appeared at various clubs around El Lay and it’s environs. I did know Melissa was the overachieving creator and musical director of NYFA’s uber-prolific extracurricular student-fueled Glee Club and also was aware she is as much of an obsessed Tennessee Williamophile as I am, both of us often tapping scenes from his plays as material assigned to students in our acting classes.
In 2019, however, I was fortunate enough to see Melissa’s work as an actress when she appeared as Stella opposite our mutual friend Susan Priver’s Blanche in Tenn’s classic A Streetcar Named Desire at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in West Los Angeles. Was she good as Stella? No. She was outstanding—so good in fact that she became my honoree last year as my annual TicketHolder Awards' Best Supporting Actress of 2019, a choice I’m often reluctant to confer upon friends since my objectivity in awarding such a thing might be considered a tad suspicious. This time out, however, Melissa Sullivan was an easy choice.
Still it was with some trepidation that I privately reacted when she sent me a download of Late Last Night, her new jazzy, bluesy album due to be released next Friday, June 26, particularly since she politely asked if I might consider writing a review of it. See, even though I do have a background in the music business and I have been writing about theatre for nearly 33 years, as I told Melissa, writing about music is something I’ve not attempted before—and nothing is more uncomfortable than to discover all the personal deep-downs that must be revealed by a friend during the overwhelmingly difficult process of creating art can as a finished project often be... shall we say... slightly less than perfect?
Luckily for me—and for the rest of us beneficiaries of a remarkable effort—as it turns out Late Last Night and the work of one Melissa Sullivan actually is just about perfect. This debut album is simply a stunner, a very contemporary tribute to the best of those nostalgic bygone eras of innovative jazz and deeply mournful blues, those groundbreaking American artforms that completely changed and energized the course of music forever.
And while she’s at it, Late Last Night takes a courageous detour onto a musical side street inhabited by Big Band-era swing, wading into the often murky waters of folk music, then even leaping headfirst into a catchy and welcome turn honoring the signature cadences of Latin rhythms. Recorded at Sir Tiger Studios in Culver City, here are 10 highly diverse tracks that quickly reveal the remarkable diversity of Sullivan’s unique gifts, including eight composed by her—well, seven, including a reprise of one tune that impressively ends the album—and two exceptionally jaunty covers of a pair of American standards, each from extremely different periods of musical composition.
As a composer and lyricist, her talents are truly a revelation, filled with palpable passion and a haunting sense of loss, loneliness, and the heartache of misplaced romance. Yet the first thing to knock one’s socks off here is Melissa Sullivan’s voice, capable of vocal calisthenics that could almost make David Byrne a tad boring in comparison. Her vocals mutate from track to track with uncanny multiplicity, from a foggy, breathless Anita O’Day-like quality to the soulful vulnerability of my late-great bestie Laura Nyro to the all-out ballsiness of Janis Joplin after finishing off at least half of her usual onstage bottle of 100-proof bourbon.
Her steamy, balmy torchsong-throwback “It’s a Love” perfectly kicks off the collection with its hot, sensual percussions as she mourns the kind of carnal thrill she says she’s never known but is confident lurks deep in the shadows where her “heart can’t be wrong.” As with many of the album’s tracks, its nomadic mood is clearly reinforced by the Mose Allison-esque piano styling of her coproducer, arranger, and writing partner Peter Adams.
Sylvain Carton’s plaintive sax solo does similar service to “He’s Bad,” with Sullivan’s almost whimsical performance reminiscent of one of those woeful ballads of past loves made popular by Billie Holiday, complete with a happy ending: “I told him I quit / I’m tired of your bullshit.” Luckily for pioneers of southern delta blues, the word “bad” rhymes with “glad.”
“Miles Away” is a redolently mournful plea for the return of a sorely missed lover who has chosen to move on while “trying to hide your past,” a beautifully poetic living eulogy to the kind of intelligent explorations of the human need for love that made Joni Mitchell one of our time’s most enduring musical icons.
There’s a contemporary musical theatre quality to “Borders,” which Sullivan composed in her head one morning in her car on her way to teaching a class at NYFA. It’s a piece that would not be out of place if included in one of the most recent Broadway hit shows such as Sarah Barrielles’ Waitress or Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey‘s If/Then. The wistful balled—another lamenting the pain of a mislaid love as others promise her it’s “just a phase,” finished the album perfectly, but earlier in the mix it is first introduced as a spirited bilingual duet with Mexican-born musician and actor Lito de la Isla of the group Los Rumberos. After seeing the singer/composer/actor in performance, Sullivan got the inspiration for this serendipitous Latin-infused collaboration, here redubbed “Borders/Fronteras.”
Sullivan segues with ease into the unexpectedly cheerful bossa nova beat of “Marcella,” an Antonio Carlos Jobim-inspired tale of an eager admirer excited for her return to that special person who, as Tennessee Williams once noted, resides just next of one’s heart, while "Sirens” is an almost bucolic, countrified number, recalling an unforgettable afternoon of quality schtupping at “river’s bend" and featuring a raspy, powerhouse of a stadium-sized vocal that might have killed off that other half of Joplin’s ever-present bottle of Southern Comfort.
And speaking of comfort first manufactured by southerners, my favorite of the original compositions introduced on Late Last Night is another stirring love ballad called “Adrian,” which brilliantly incorporates layers of backup vocals also overdubbed Nyro-style by Sullivan as she rues the ephemeral nature of courtship when she was young and naive and kept her “heart on a shelf.” To make this song even more personally satisfying to me, it is set within the backdrop of my beloved home-away-from-home New Orleans’ disastrous Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as The Storm (as it’s called there) “keeps raging“ outside and this gossamer early love is found and then lost.
The album’s other two tracks are those aforementioned covers. Melissa sometimes sounds like a cross between Morgana King and Blossom Dearie in her whimsical interpretation of Percy Mayfield’s 1953 time-honored standard “Lost Mind,” crying that she’s “lost my mind in wild romance” over a “devil with the face of an angel” as “cruel and sweet as homemade sin.” Close your eyes listening to this track and you might just find yourself transported directly to one of those crowded, smoke-filled little hotspots along the French Quarter’s Frenchmen Street, especially as Adams’ notable piano solo gives a loving nod to Master Mose, the guy made this tune a classic in 1963.
Sullivan’s fortuitous cohort Peter Adams is also a revelation, his arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael’s vintage 1941 “Skylark,” along with his partner’s sweetly simple and gorgeous vocal phrasing, can also send you on a musical magic carpet spin back in time, for me to Chicago’s Rush Street in the 1960s where I first fell in love with lyrical jazz and the artists who so fervidly preserve it.
Just when you think you have an idea of what emotional triggers Late Last Night can spark in you, something all-new and totally unexpected will next toy with your sensibilities, a tease that I promise will be gratefully welcomed as we all try to survive our daily lives just now with its daily rollercoaster ride of assaults and disappointments on both a national and global scale.
I was trepidatious first listening to Late Last Night but let me tell you, my admiration for the unearthly gifts of Melissa Sullivan has grown exponentially, from cherishing a talented friend and colleague to settling somewhere awfully close to goddess status.
Melissa Sullivan’s Late Last Night is available on Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes, Deezer, or at melissa-sullivan.com/music