Vocalist and songwriter Georgia Mancio hosts her 2019 Hang at Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho on 9 – 11 October. She spoke to John Fordham about collaboration, heritage, lyrics, multiple realities and the need to embrace empathy and communication:
Eleven years ago, when she was just beginning to find her feet on a jazz stage, there was something about the multilingual British singer Georgia Mancio that in retrospect should have been a clue to her future – that one day she might make a real difference as a musical enabler as well an artist.
In 2010, Georgia Mancio began curating her own annual festival – ReVoice! – at Soho’s Pizza Express Jazz Club. The series ran for five years, and featured over 160 international artists from Tuck & Patti to Carleen Anderson via Norma Winstone and Karin Krog, with Gregory Porter’s first UK booking as probably its biggest coup.
“In these five years since ReVoice! ended I’ve had the space to work more deeply on my lyric writing that really started in earnest with my album Silhouette – which was released in 2010, the year that ReVoice! started,” Mancio observes. She’s a quick-thinking interviewee, who peppers biographical detail with philosophical or funny asides, and sounds delightedly grateful to be doing what she does. “The previous two editions of Hang have been about my various playing partnerships, but for this third one, I’m very proud to be focussing on three very diverse but complementary writing projects.
“The first night links to ReVoice! because those shows were primarily about artists I wanted to give a platform to whilst sharing my own work alongside them. The title’s Where We Once Belonged, and the evening explores our relationships to our heritage and the past and how it impacts our identities through the prism of our current times. Robert Mitchell, who’s a stunning poet as well as a pianist and composer, responds to his upbringing as a child of the Windrush Generation in a duo with the highly versatile cellist, Shirley Smart. Kim Macari, the trumpeter, spoken-word artist and activist, tells stories of her Scottish roots in a solo soundscape set, and pianist/songwriter Tom Cawley and I will present a suite of character driven songs relating to my European and Latin American family. I’ve been an advocate for refugee rights these last few years, and now with the possibly irreversible divisions of Brexit, insecurities about displacement and belonging are closer than ever. So this will be a very personal night of music, but one I think many people will connect with and be moved by.”
Cawley, an accomplished and versatile musician, is a particularly empathic and astute accompanist for vocalists (working with former Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel has played a big part in his recent life) who has noted that he often hears an imaginary singer in his head even whilst composing instrumental themes. His approach to songwriting has presented the adventurous Georgia Mancio with a new challenge.
“At the last ReVoice!, in 2014, Tom casually suggested we co-write a set of originals from the lyrics first,” Mancio continues. “Having up until that point only written from the music first, it seemed a chasm! With the music – and often the title – as a starting point there’s a framework, and my job is to make the lyrics fit naturally enough for you to imagine they’ve always co-existed.
“Suddenly, there are no boundaries. And so I found myself writing in a completely different way – creating vignettes of protagonists and antagonists, and really trying to get under their skins. From my Italian Partisan grandmother in World War Two, to my free-spirited father, what unites them all is being caught between multiple realities, and their very human responses. Tom has turned them into often very catchy songs so they feel very accessible and shoot to the simple heart of the question: ‘Who do we really think we are?'”
Hang’s second and third nights involve two other crucial partnerships in the collaborative Georgia Mancio’s rich musical life – her genre-crossing work with British composer/pianist Kate Williams, and her now six year-old partnership with the Grammy-winning American pianist, songwriter and producer Alan Broadbent. Williams invited Mancio to join her combined piano trio and string quartet Four Plus Three in 2017, and the pair devised an elegiac and romantic programme of songs on themes of departure and return that they called Finding Home – the focus of the Hang festival’s second performance. The closing show, Songbook, features Mancio’s and Broadbent’s now sizeable book of originals, with regular partners Oli Hayhurst and Dave Ohm on bass and drums.
“Kate’s arrangements are beautifully integrated, and often very surprising,” Mancio reflects. “Whether they’re reworkings of the Great American Songbook, or songs from Brazil and Chile, or originals we’ve co-written. In a way our songs bridge the gap between the work with Tom Cawley and my Songbook with Alan, in that we used different writing methods. Kate and I have worked intensively on this project for over two years, planning an album and tour, so our partnership runs deep. We co-wrote a trilogy of songs based on the true stories of three refugee children – mainly told to me or witnessed first hand whilst volunteering in the Calais ‘Jungle.’ It has been an honour trying to capture and do justice to those stories and we’ve been delighted at the response on live shows.
“My work with Alan Broadbent is different, but it felt just as evident that there was a stylistic empathy there from the start. It began with an impulse email I’d sent him – thanks to the prompting of a great friend, the bassist Andrew Cleyndert – which led to Alan and I playing duo gigs in 2013, writing together from 2014 the quartet gigs across Europe. Last year we played in New York and the Rochester International Jazz Festival so these are the first London shows since our Songbook album launch at Ronnie Scott’s in 2017.”
Such songwriting intimacy with an ocean and a time zone between the participants seems like a hard trick to pull off. How did Mancio and Broadbent manage it?
“The flow and ease of it feel amazing, particularly since we’re living on different continents,” Mancio agrees. “I’d known his reputation, and was totally swept away by his partnership with Irene Kral, but I had no idea he was such an extraordinary composer until he started sending me pieces that he said he had always imagined should have words. The first was The Long Goodbye – which became The Last Goodbye – and we’ve now written 26 songs together. Sometimes we each argue the case for or against a particular word or phrase, but if I lose, as it were, it always ends up as an opportunity to write something stronger.”
Mancio treasures Songbook as the venture that gave her the confidence to fully consider herself a lyricist, and which opened up the other writing options she’s now exploring on the 2019 Hang, and elsewhere in her performing life. “The songs sound like jazz standards, but they’re linguistically rooted in the modern day,” Mancio observes. “They’re also brilliantly played by Alan, who’s truly one of the piano greats.” The singer’s London rhythm team of bassist Oli Hayhurst and drummer Dave Ohm are also key contributors to how scintillatingly well this subtle music gels.
The frankness, fearlessness, and understated skilfulness of Georgia Mancio’s work – the qualities that made her recognisable as one of a kind over a decade ago – continue to deepen, and if the routes to that repeatedly take her out of her comfort zones, she’s as ready to make those journeys now as she was then, or maybe readier.
“Hang comes at the end of a tumultuous year for me – personally, professionally and politically,” she says. “Like ReVoice! before it, it reminds me of my need to nurture collaborations, and to balance the legacy of all the great artists that have come before with the excitement and courage to seek new ventures and see where they take me. So although right now, I find myself caught between multiple realities, the enormous comfort is in feeling that I’ve found my artistic voice. It’s always a privilege to stand before an audience and share that. Not least in an era when we need to embrace communication and empathy, and hold on tight.”
Georgia Mancio’s Hang is at the Pizza Express Jazz Club, Dean Street, from 9 – 11 October 2019.