“Harmony was the main interest that sent me down the jazz route – harmony resonated with me,” says pianist Jonny Liebeck . A graduate of both the Royal Academy of Music and Trinity Laban, he has played in the bands of both Mica Paris and Omar Puente.
His debut album – Mellow Mind has just been released. (Launch gig 12 September 6pm at Artis Blackheath). He spoke to Alison Bentley about moving from classical organ to jazz piano, working with Omar Puente, and how he combines jazz fusion with Latin, soul, house and funk in his original compositions.
London Jazz News: You started out playing classical organ and then got into jazz piano?
Jonny Liebeck: I started piano lessons when I was about eight. There was a strong musical influence in my family, because my mum is an opera singer. I had friends at primary school who sang in the choir in the Brompton Oratory. So I joined the junior choir – I used to hear the organist play and was really intrigued by the instrument. I was a bit of an organ geek in my teens – I liked playing Bach and baroque music.
When I was about 13 I used to go to a Saturday Junior music day at the Royal College of Music. One time, I was trying to improvise some Bach and my teacher said, “Jonny, next week I want you to come back and improvise in a completely different style of music.” I heard some Duke Ellington on Radio 3 that afternoon. I loved it and went back to the class and played a jazz improvisation the following week. Later as an organ undergraduate I got really into jazz piano – I’m more self-taught with jazz.
LJN: Have Bach’s harmonies influenced your jazz compositions?
JL: Definitely. Harmony was the main interest that sent me down the jazz route – harmony resonated with me.
LJN: You mentioned Ellington and Fats Waller – who else influenced you?
JL: When I was 17, I discovered Mark Levine’s guide to jazz harmony. There were example jazz standards in the book by Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea – quite advanced pieces. I also spent quite a long period getting into Robert Glasper’s music.
LJN: On your album, there are clearly a lot of different influences. Daydreaming made me think of Bill Evans with quite complicated-sounding chords. Then on Nostalgic Evenings, there is a hip hop feel – tell me a bit more…
JL: I wrote Daydreaming in 2011. I got really drawn to that Bill Evans harmony. I also use modal chords.
Then about 5 years ago, I started going to jams around London, getting influenced by other styles like funk and soul, and I played with a gospel choir. The tunes on the album are more groove based and I let the drummer Andrew [McLean] put his own flavour on them. I listen to a lot of house music – that comes from funk grooves, like hip hop does.
I wrote these tunes using Logic software. For some of them I’ll just give a basic outline of the groove and leave it to Andrew and the bass player to come up with a feel for the tune. I do write quite a lot of bass lines, like Mellow State. I’m quite into chords with wide intervals – the dissonance it creates speaks to me.
I wrote Chances because it’s good to take your chances as a musician. If something hasn’t worked out, pick yourself up and try again. Boris Latinov harmonised the melody on guitar. There’s a Hancock influence there in my solo – I’ve transcribed a bit of Herbie in my time.
Journey is from 2012 – that’s got a groovy hip hop feel as well. I guess I wrote it about the musical life! Last year I went to the Edinburgh fringe with my mum and her friend Omar Puente, who’s a well-known Cuban violinist. We did a couple of duo gigs and he was teaching me some Latin and Cuban tunes which influenced Soulful Feeling.
Chico has its own story. I knew a vicar in West London who was a very keen saxophone player. We used to play jazz together with an older Brazilian man, an amazing drummer and sadly homeless. I wrote this for that drummer. He was a Latin percussionist who also really liked his hard bop swing, which is reflected in the tune. A year into playing together we were joined by a local bass player who had toured with a lot of famous funk and soul artists back in the day.
I wrote Memories as a recollection of my musical and personal path and journey to where I am now. Reflections is just keyboard, guitar and bass to end the album. I do a lot of keyboard work for house producers, so definitely some of my chord progressions are influenced by dance music (particularly Deep House) – soulful chords.
LJN: You have unusual chords but quite accessible melodies.
JL: I try and hear a melody in my head. I do tend to come out with quite lyrical melodies – simple but quite effective!
LJN: Tell me about your band.
JL: Last year, when I decided I was going to record some of my own music, I was playing in a lot of jams with Boris and Andrew. Tom Mason [bass] is into electronic music and drum and bass like me.
There’s an amazing jazz night at Grow in Hackney Wick, run by Boris and Rio Kai, the other bass player on the album. We play together every week and I thought it would be really cool to get Rio involved as well.
We recorded the album live at the OneCat Studio in Brixton and we’re pushing for radio play and more live performances. All the compositions are a reflection of my journey of 29 years! (pp)
LINK: Jonny Liebeck’s website