Kevin Mahogany will open the ReVoice! Festival, Pizza Express, Dean Street. Thurs. 10th & Fri. 11th Oct. Alison Bentley has previewed the show AND also interviewed him.
A rare UK visit from the great US vocalist Kevin Mahogany, with his remarkable voice and effortless swing. After loving his music for a long time, I heard him at Ronnie Scott’s a few years ago, and immediately filled all the gaps in my Mahogany CD collection.
His deep, sonorous tone can sound very like a sax, so it’s no surprise that he started out playing baritone in big bands. He discovered his voice was his instrument: ‘I didn’t have the desire to play the saxophone like a true saxophone player does,’ he told one interviewer. He often duets intuitively with saxophonists on his recordings: Gary Smulyan, Ralph Moore, Benny Golson, Tony Lakatos…
Mahogany brings a languid bluesiness and laid-back, precise phrasing to his repertoire of lesser-known standards, reminiscent of Joe Williams. His 2012 album Old New Borrowed and the Blues reveals his gospel roots in a piano/vocal reading of His Eye is On the Sparrow. He admires Eddie Jefferson and John Hendricks and has worked with the latter. Hendricks himself wrote: ‘It is Kevin’s scatting more than anything else he does that gives him authenticity as a jazz singer.’ Mahogany improvises like an instrumentalist, with a boppy, playful musicality and perfect intonation. On his album of Mingus’ music with the WDR Big Band, his voice often adds colour to the whole sound, improvising solos as part of the front line. It’s called Pussy Cat Dues, and it makes you want to curl up and purr. He can also do an impressive growly belt, as on his Kevin Mahogany – Big Band album.
In contrast, his ballad singing can have a delicate, touching breathiness, (the My Romance album). Or the voice can take on a strong, rich tone, as Clint Eastwood put it: ‘He’s got great ease on the stage, and a great voice and presentation reminiscent of Johnny Hartman’. Mahogany’s The Coltrane Hartman Fantasy is testimony to that.
Mahogany’s keen to bring new songs into the jazz repertoire: ‘When you listen to the artists that we respect and call the masters of jazz, they were doing the same thing, performing the music of their youth… I want to do the same, and continue the tradition.’ Pride and Joy features brilliant acoustic jazz re-workings of Motown soul songs, with echoes of the Temptations’ Melvin Franklin and Al Jarreau.
Best of all is Mahogany’s emotional directness, shining through the beautiful voice, like Gregory Porter. He always sounds completely natural and relaxed. To quote his own lyrics on the new album with the Dave Stryker Trio:
‘Kansas City, born and bred – I like my blues to swing and my jazz straight ahead.’
It’s going to be very special to hear that voice in the intimacy of the Pizza Express- can’t wait!
(With James Pearson, piano; Mark Hodgson, bass; Dave Ohm, drums)
Support from Georgia Mancio – vocals, and Nikki Iles – piano
Alison Bentley: How long is it since you last played in the UK?
Kevin Mahogany: Gosh, it’s been 2 or 3 years. It was at Ronnie Scott’s.
AB. Can I ask you a bit about your voice first?
KM. Ask me anything you want!
AB. I read that you studied opera singing for while. Is that right?
KM. Yes, I studied Classical Voice and Art Song in University, when I got out of High School. They didn’t have Jazz Studies at the time; all they had were Classical Studies so…actually that helped me a lot in my singing jazz and R&B and different styles. Because the basics of singing are the same, regardless of what style or genre you choose. You have to breathe correctly. And you still have to sing in tune, in pitch and be able to recognise notes and hear things.
AB. So what made you stick with jazz rather than taking a Classical route or pop route?
KM. As strange as it may sound, a lot of it was the number of jobs that were available in Classical music for a Baritone, especially at that time for African-American Baritones. I’d been playing [jazz] instrumentally already. By the time I got to College I’d already been playing about 10 years.
I also played saxophone in a jazz band at home so that was a stronger influence on me- jazz and R&B. I chose to sing jazz because that felt a little more at home. I still do all styles, but jazz felt more comfortable and natural to me.
AB. Did you study with any jazz singers?
KM. No, I didn’t have any jazz singers to really study with, other than just listening to them. But there were a few in Kansas City. There are always some local artists who are very good. There was one in Kansas City who was very popular and well known by her peer group, and I took lessons from her. There were a few others who, again, were not as well known, but knew jazz; that helped me develop my sound and style, and choose songs, and things like that.
AB. How do you get that vocal sound?
KM. I don’t have any special exercises other than generally warming up and talking every day. Usually when I’m singing most nights, when I’m singing consistently, I try not to warm up at all- it’s not good to use it too much. I tend to talk a lot and sing a lot so…but nothing special- really just try and keep it as healthy as possible, keep my throat warm and drink plenty of fluids. I don’t smoke and I don’t drink alcohol while I’m singing. I might have a little something after I’ve finished singing! I don’t drink alcohol on stage or anything like that. If you try and protect it with everything you’ve got, hopefully it’s gonna keep sounding like it is!
AB. How did you develop your improvising style?
KM. A lot of my improvising style came from my instrumental playing. I played saxophone for a number of years, and clarinet. What I couldn’t do on the saxophone… I just eliminated the saxophone and did it with my voice. I had the thoughts, but my fingers wouldn’t co-operate enough, so I just went ahead and said, okay…I started singing it and it just seemed to work out. I think instrumentally when it comes to improvising. I’m more of an instrumentalist when I’m thinking about what I’m improvising, as opposed to trying to worry about being a vocalist. Then it’s more about making sure you’re in tune, and that your improvisation fits what you’re with stylistically.
AB. What about the words? Do find that you think dramatically when you’re singing words?
Well, hopefully I don’t have to think about it: it’s just a response that comes naturally with the words. Actors don’t think about what they’re saying- they have to act. So that’s the same thing with me. Hopefully, I’m beyond the point now where I have to think about how I’m going to do it or how I’m going to perform it. It comes out naturally. All my voice students- I encourage them to take not only speech classes but also dramatic classes, literature…Because that’s what you’re doing on stage. Every song that you sing on stage, you have to absorb the persona of that song. Your audience has to believe that you’ve experienced what you’re singing about, or else it’s just not gonna work. If it’s a love song, they have to believe that you’ve been in this kind of love. If it’s a happy song, they have to believe you’ve been that happy. If the audience doesn’t believe it then you didn’t do something right.
AB. Have you any plans to do any other recordings of more recent songs, like your Pride and Joy album?
KM. I have considered it, and we’re still considering some of those things. I like that idea. And I really wish that they’d gotten behind it a little bit more. We would’ve had a great time with that record – it toured really well. I do have a new group that I’m putting together to perform more contemporary music as well as originals- jazz and blues- so hopefully we’ll get a chance to record with that group. Some of it will be contemporary Motown, Stax, or some of the older R&B stuff. We’ll have original material as well, that hopefully will be just as funky and groovy as the jazz things are.
AB. Were there any particular jazz albums that you were especially influenced by?
KM. One that I really enjoyed was an Al Jarreau album, Look to the Rainbow. In fact, that to me was like what I was doing. It was his original material -he’d made it modern-sounding. Some of the older songs, they sounded like they were not only new recordings but new, like they’d just been written. I loved his style musically. And I’m hoping that maybe I can do something that moves other people as much as that moved me.
AB. Any instrumental albums that have influenced you?
KM. When I was young I was really influenced by Charlie Parker because he’s from my home area. I’m originally from Kansas City. I’ve always liked Charlie Parker and Ben Webster and some of the Midwestern artists. And believe me, as a vocalist, it’s just as important to listen to instrumentalists as it is to listen to the other vocalists. In fact, everybody is so surprised, because they really think that I was influenced by Joe Williams and Johnny Hartman, and indirectly I was. But the first ones I really listened to were Motown, and then I kind of slid into jazz through that Al Jarreau album.
Most people that listen to jazz, or listen to artists, study backwards. When I found Al Jarreau I studied backwards- Jon Hendricks, Lambert Hendricks and Ross, Eddie Jefferson, Leo Watson and King Pleasure, and all the wonderful artists back there. So I started doing a lot of bebop as well. It’s turned out to be nice that l found that, because you learn so much when you really dig into the artists that you’re listening to- as opposed to just listening to try to find a new tune, or something.
I was actually trying to find out not only about who these people were but the music they were doing and why they were doing it and what made it so fascinating to them and to other people.