Mendez and music director Paguia met in 2010. Based in NYC, they have performed at venues such as Joe's Pub, Birdland and Lincoln Center, as part of the 2013 American Songbook series. The duo takes on Manhattan nightclub 54 Below Sept. 9 at 9:30 PM, where they will debut new tunes and perform old favorites from their debut jazz album "This Time."
"This Time," which was released May 28, offers an eclectic mix of songs, reimagining tracks from popular music and blending elements of jazz, soul and rock into the familiar setting of an acoustic piano trio (in addition to Paguia at the piano, Chris Tordini plays bass with Tommy Crane on drums) and vocalist. Their reinterpretations include songs by Alicia Keys, Stevie Wonder, Fiona Apple, The Cars, Joni Mitchell, John Legend and more.
In anticipation of the duo's upcoming gig, Playbill.com checked in with Mendez, who chatted about working at 54 Below and hand-picking new material with collaborator Paguia.
I saw your jazz concert with Marco for the first time last year at Feinstein's. What excites you about taking your show to 54 Below? I think the space is perfectly intimate for a concert like this.
Lindsay Mendez: I do, too. What I love about 54 Below is that it celebrates people in our industry and gives a place for all of us — actors and performers — to show what else we do besides what we do eight times a week down the street. And, I love that [the club is] literally underneath a Broadway theatre — you really feel the vibe and the energy of midtown. We've gigged all over the city, and I love getting to play at this venue and getting to bring what I like to do on the side — which is kind of strict jazz [sound] — to a Broadway-type of venue. It's really exciting, and I think it opens us up to a bigger Broadway audience who have might not have heard [our jazz material] before. What has been the response to your debut album with Marco, "This Time"?
LM: It's been really exciting. [Our] goal in making the album and in working together has always been to create a sound that was musically challenging and, yet, accessible to people who weren't necessarily musicians. It's definitely a modern kind of jazz [and] R&B style mashed together. People are really loving it and enjoying it, and that's been such a thrill to me — especially [when] young people, who I don't know would necessarily go out and buy a jazz album, have decided to buy it because they saw me in Wicked or Dogfight. I think it's been surprising to them, and they really adopted it, and it's been so amazing to hear from people on social media that they're loving the album.
Tell me about your collaboration with Marco. You have such an eclectic mix of artists you cover — from Regina Spektor to Stevie Wonder to John Legend. The range is so wide. How do you begin to pick songs that you want to reinvent?
LM: When we first [began] our collaboration, we started a big song list of songs that he and I loved separately and put them in a big pile, and then we kind of weeded out what would work and what [inspired] an arrangement. Some came right away, and [with] some stuff, we thought, "I don't know if we can make this our own." So things have kind of fallen into place through the years. We still listen to new music all the time and think, "This can be something interesting." We [also] have our fans and friends and family think of songs and send them our way. There are endless possibilities because we do everything. We have no stipulation on who we want to cover or what kind of style because we can turn anything into an arrangement that works for us. A lot of the music on the album are songs that either he and I grew up listening to or artists we idolize and wanted to cover. As we keep going forward, we find more [material] that's modern and coming out right now.
What new songs have you been working on that we may hear at 54 Below?
LM: We have a cover of this song called "Shade of a Shadow" by Teitur, who is this kind of "out-there" artist, which is really cool. We also started working on a Queen cover of "I Want to Break Free," which is really fun. We already have one Alicia Keys cover, ["No One"], but on her new album we love her song "Tears Always Win" — we're covering that as well. We have some things that didn't make the album that we're thinking about bringing back for this concert. And, of course, there will be songs off the album as well, so it will be a mix of new and really old and the album. It's going to be great.
What old favorites will we hear?
LM: "Ordinary People" [by John Legend] seems to be a favorite. We'll definitely do that and "Us" by Regina Spektor. At our gig at Lincoln Center, we debuted an arrangement of "Lovefool" by The Cardigans, and that's become a new favorite of ours, so we'll be doing that as well.
Is there hope for a second album to come out with all of this new material?
LM: For sure… There's always hope for that. I want to get this album more out there and see how it goes…but definitely. We have a lot of gigs coming up through the rest of the year and into next year, and we're going to keep trying new material. We have so many songs. It was so hard to choose the songs that were on the album because we have a huge list of material, and we keep adding to it. There's always the hope that we'll record more of our stuff, but it takes a while to refine the arrangements. They're always changing and getting better. That's why I think it took us so long to make the first album because we wanted to feel like this was the final product of what these arrangements are, and until you try them out in front of people and see what people think and how you feel about them — digesting them as an artist… It takes a while to hone them and refine them. The result was making an album that I am proud of. What I also love about it is that the music that the guys play and the way I sing it — it's different every time we do it, and that's what's cool about jazz. Marco doesn't play with any sheet music. He just plays, and it's always different, so that's really exciting. Even if you're used to hearing the song played one way on the album, it can be totally different [in concert], and I think that's the incredible thing about live music — to watch a musician have that talent to just play something new and different with the same song.
What's up next for you and Marco?
LM: We're doing a big benefit for the Cancer Support Community on Oct. 7 in Philly. It's just Marco and I. We're doing a set — just the two of us — and I know that there's definitely tickets available, and all the money goes to the Cancer Support Community, and that means a lot to me, personally. We'll be doing that in October, we have another gig scheduled at 54 Below in December… We're trying to gig when we can on my nights off from Wicked, which is crazy, but also something I really want to do and something that I'm so lucky [to be able to do with] Wicked… They let me sell the album in the lobby and they really support what we do. For more information and tickets, visit 54Below.com.
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)