Born: July 3, 1964 Primary Instrument: Vocal
With her rich, multi-octave vocal textures and impeccable phrasing, Melissa Walker has won kudos in concerts across several continents, working with such hallowed talents as Hank Jones, Gary Bartz, and Kenny Barron; young jazz geniuses like Christian McBride, Stefon Harris and Mokoto Ozone; and late greats like Ray Brown.
Her three CD releases since 1997 - and well-deserved Canadian Juno award nomination and US Indie honorable mention -- have created a nuanced corpus of jazz standards and new material unrivaled in its reverence for America's jazz tradition.
In performance in Manhattan at the Jazz Standard, Birdland, or Iridium; abroad, at the Blue Note or Sweet Basil in Japan or Pizza Express in London; or at Montreux and other jazz fests, Walker has turned heads and excited influential critics to rave about her winning personality and technical excellence.
Melissa's anchored and wide-open musicianship mirrors her dual cultural heritage. Born the youngest of three sisters in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where her father played professional football and parents eventually went on to earn doctorate degrees, Melissa graduated from Brown University intending to enroll in law school. But the legal life was not to be! Local performances led to out-of-town dates, then to her 1993 self-produced recording, Little Wishes, and relocation to New York City, where she studied with pianist and master vocal-accompanist Norman Simmons. Matthias Winckelmann of Germany's Enja Records heard her sing, and she became the first female jazz vocalist signed by his impressive label since Abbey Lincoln many years earlier.
Her career on the ascent, Melissa recorded May I Feel, her first Enja CD, in 1998, receiving a coveted US Indie Award nod for Vocal Jazz. Her subsequent CD, Moment of Truth, released in 1999, vaulted her to the forefront of her generation of jazz stylists.
Media coverage followed: appearances on ABC, BET, Oxygen Network, Reuters and Fox TV; stories and reviews in Downbeat, US, Ebony, Jazz Times, Swing Journal, Billboard, Vogue, Munich Daily and London's Evening Standard and a host of European journals and newspapers -- all proclaiming her ability to command an audience. During these performances, Melissa worked with such seminal artists as Phil Woods, Buster Williams, Russell Mallone, Benny Green, Geoff Keezer, Steve Wilson, Ron Blake, Steve Turre and Geri Allen.
As her reputation grew, Melissa recorded her third Enja CD with longtime band mate and producer Clarence Penn, I Saw the Sky, released in 2001. The release was a Canadian Juno Award finalist. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's well-known jazz critic, Bob Protzman, compared her to Sarah Vaughan. Jazz CD Review called her a cross between Carmen McRae and Betty Carter.
She joined Ray Brown's 75th Birthday Celebration Tour, collaborated with Japan's superstar Sadao Watanabe, and opened for legendary Ray Charles, and performed with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra under Wynton Marsalis at the Duke Ellington Centennial Celebration. Melissa has amazed recent audiences in performances at the Kennedy Center Women in Jazz Festival, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Joe's Pub and The Jazz Standard in Manhattan. Appearing as a special guest with the Christian McBride Band at NYC's Jazz Standard during the coveted New Year's week found AllAboutJazz.com critic Russ Musto writing of Walker's marvelous articulation and expansive range.
Melissa is the featured vocalist on an upcoming release in tribute and celebration to New York City led by renowned audio impresario, Charles Morrow and master bassist, Buster Williams featuring Geri Allen, Paul Bollenback, Stefon Harris and Lenny White.
Now preparing to record her fifth CD, when Melissa isn't touring she is the Saturday-night headliner with her talented trio at the upscale Short Hills (NJ) Hilton, and has become the veritable 'Bobby Short of New Jersey'. Melissa dedicates her time to Jazz House Kids, Inc. the acclaimed not-for-profit organization she created, which provides jazz enrichment programs for kids. In addition, Melissa is a sought-after voice-over and imaging voice talent working with entertainment, corporate and non-profit clients. Recently, she provided song for the Empire State Building's new observatory MP3 audio tour, hosted Journey with Jazz at Lincoln Center.and was the voice of Ms. Lightening in the Nickelodeon pilot Zwoosh.
Asked what stirs her to achieve what The Washington Post called her all-enveloping mastery of a song, Melissa has said, I think of songs as stories. They represent and convey our universal expectations about love, joy, longing, loss, regret, roads taken and not taken. Songs capture the essence of our spirits and help define our spiritual life; they are celebrations of what we've done and who we are. They are my gifts to the people round the world who have heard and supported me, who love jazz, who hold dear the art of the song.