Singer Peter Jones released a well-received album “One Way Ticket to Palookaville” in 2013, and will be at the Pheasantry on April 16th. Sebastian interviewed him, starting with some insights about an area Peter knows well, London’s open mic and jam session scene:
LondonJazz News: You’ve been a participant in the London open mic scene. What drew you towards it?
Peter Jones: I’d been playing bass in a band called the Jazz Traitors for six years. They actually had a singer, but the saxophonist liked my voice and so I was allowed to sing one tune per gig. I noticed that people were looking up and taking notice, and I was getting positive reactions at the end. So eventually I decided to give up the bass and concentrate on singing. And the only way you can get to sing jazz when you’re starting out is to go to jams.
LJN: Are jams something one graduates from, or are there still things to be learnt?
PJ: There are always things to be learnt. I know this, because I’m always making mistakes. For instance, what’s the right key? You sing along with a tune at home and it all seems fine. Then you take it to a jam and you realize it’s about three semitones too low. Or you give the band a self-written chart with errors in it, and find yourselves going off in separate directions. Embarrassing, for sure. But you learn.
LJN: How’s the standard?
PJ: Extremely variable. Some people carry on doing it for years and never seem to get any better. Others are reluctant to get out of their comfort zone, and stick to a handful of standards. But then you’ll hear someone who’s got a really fine voice and isn’t afraid to take risks with material or arrangements. If it doesn’t work out, you’ll still get respect and appreciation. It’s a very mutually supportive scene.
LJN: Where are the good ones?
PJ: There are about four I go to, on and off. The most long-established is probably Sarah Lidell’s jam, formerly at the Ram Jam in Kingston, now at the Oak just up the road. The Toulouse Lautrec one is very lively. Sarah Chaplin has recently started a very promising jam at the OSO in Barnes. And then there’s the Hare and Hounds in East Sheen. That’s where I met Shura Greenberg, the bass player who’s on my gig. He’s been running the jam for a while and it’s very well attended. One bonus is that Duncan Lamont goes to it, and I’ve got to know him.
LJN: Early on Nat King Cole was a big inspiration for you?
PJ: The Unforgettable Nat King Cole was the only jazz album in the house when I was growing up. I knew all the words to every song. Still do. I’ve recorded two that were on it: Nature Boy and Sweet Lorraine.
LJN: What’s the story of your 2013 album “One Way Ticket to Palookaville”? Was it something you’d thought about doing for years?
PJ: Not at all. I’d booked Derek Nash’s studio for a day, intending to record a couple of demos. We did it all live, with just a couple of percussion and sax overdubs. The musicians were so on the ball, we only needed a couple of takes for each tune, so by late afternoon we had eight tunes in the can, and Vasilis Xenopoulos said to me, Hey, this is good, you should release this, man! I literally hadn’t even thought about it being an album. Then I brought it out, and got a fantastic review in Jazzwise.
LJN: What will you be singing on April 16?
PJ: I’m still finalizing the set, but there will be some new numbers in there. I’m very keen to do some Donald Fagen/Steely Dan material. I’ve also been looking at some lesser known songs from the 50s and 60s.
LJN: Who’s in the band?
PJ: Vasilis on sax and flute. He’s the most exciting, melodic player I know. And also the amazing Davide Giovannini, the drummer on the album. He’s played with Bjork, Paul McCartney, Lisa Stansfield, Roy Hargrove, Marlena Shaw, Roy Ayers. Shura’s on bass. He’s a very knowledgeable musician, a fine player, and extremely supportive. And on piano I’ve got Ben Croft.
LJN: Ben Croft is a new name to me, and I guess other people may not know of him either.
PJ: They’ve almost certainly heard him, even if they haven’t heard of him. Ben’s very busy, so he probably doesn’t need to push himself forward. He plays at Scott’s, the Vortex, Pizza Express, he’s backed Belinda Carlisle, The Temptations, Dave Liebman, Lesley Garrett, played on The Voice and Britain’s Got Talent. He’s a sensitive, versatile player, with a great ear.
LJN: The cover shot of One Way Ticket to Palookaville is at a station. Which one? Are there trains from there to Palookaville?
PJ: It was taken at Strawberry Hill. The Palookaville service is erratic, to say the least. People complain all the time.
LJN: Do you consciously sing in an American accent?
PJ: Yes I do. Much as I love English-accented singers like Robert Wyatt, jazz was invented in America. The standards were first sung by Americans. The rhymes are American. It’s the vowel sounds. The other night I was at a jam and someone got up and sang Witchcraft, and I’m afraid it sounded ridiculous: he was singing witch-craaaaahhhhft, wicked witch-craaaaahhhhft. That’s not the right sound!
LJN: “The Long Goodbye” from your album – that’s rare. Who wrote the song? It’s from the 1973 film with Elliott Gould, right?
PJ: Yes. John Williams wrote it, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. I’ve always loved the film, particularly the opening scene, where he gets up at 3am because his cat wants to be fed. The theme is noodling away quietly in the background, then it changes abruptly as we see another character driving his sports car. Same tune, with a harder swing treatment. Then it cuts back to Gould, and it’s back to the more laid-back version. Then as he enters the all-night supermarket, it changes to Muzak. But the form of the song remains continuous, not missing a beat. Brilliant. The theme is heard throughout the film in any number of styles. There’s even a doorbell that plays it. So how weird that no one, to the best of my knowledge, has ever recorded it except me. Alan Broadbent has written a different song with the same title. When he played at the Watermill recently I mentioned this to him, and he said ‘Mine’s better!’
LJN: You’ve worked with words as a writer, publicist and journalist. Have you been getting into lyric writing?
PJ: Shura Greenberg and I bonded over Freddie Hubbard’s Sky Dive. The house band played it at one of his jams, and I told him I loved the tune and would love to perform it, but it doesn’t have lyrics. He said, why don’t you write some? So I did, and next time I got up and sang them. After that I wrote a lyric to the tune Midnight Voyage, which is on Michael Brecker’s Tales of the Hudson. That’s also on my album.
LJN: What are your plans for the future?
PJ: I’m doing some more recording in May, with some very exciting musicians and some wonderful new material. I also plan to hustle for more gigs, just like everyone else.