The sense of a special relationship slowly evolving has been unmistakeable whenever the gifted and versatile British/Italian singer-songwriter Georgia Mancio reflects on her now eight year-old partnership with the Grammy-winning former Woody Herman pianist and composer/arranger Alan Broadbent, writes John Fordham.
It’s a story that began when Georgia Mancio, who had admired Alan Broadbent‘s 1970s work with singer Irene Kral as a fan, sent him an email on a whim in 2012 – asking if he might consider a gig with her, next time he was in the UK. They performed together at 2013’s London Jazz Festival, and the following year – when Broadbent suggested they play his song ‘Heart’s Desire’ with words by the great American lyricist Dave Frishberg – they began to consider other instrumentals of his that might work creatively with words.
By 2017, the pair had made their Songbook debut album together and launched it in both their home towns (first at Ronnie Scott’s, and then at Dizzy’s club in the Lincoln Center, on Broadbent’s 70th birthday party), and begun to make an impression on some discriminating listeners – including Dave Gelly in The Observer, who noted that ‘Alan Broadbent’s lucid melodies and Georgia Mancio’s delicately evocative lyrics already have that inseparable feeling’. It was a prescient insight, because despite the ocean separating them and latterly the pandemic too, the pair have just kept on producing exquisite songs together. The latest evidence comes with this month’s release of their second collection, Quiet Is The Star.
Songbook was a quartet album with just one duet, but the newcomer is for just voice and piano with no rhythm section, and with only one track out of nine intimately poetic songs accelerating the pace anywhere close a canter. But the slow-burn is deceptive. Reflecting Mancio’s and Broadbent’s track record both together and separately, Quiet Is The Star is true to its title in being both low-key and vividly luminous. Its central theme is love in its many forms, but if the songs uncover the joys and losses that go with that, it’s a dynamic session even in its sombre moments – the result of the participants’ remarkable empathy, and their shared talent for conveying intensity without turning up the volume or the tempo. Press reactions to its predecessor, Songbook, often remarked on the music’s affinities with the seductive melodies and offhandedly perceptive lyrics of the classic Great American Songbook hits of the 1930s and ’40s. But if there are certainly resemblances in the chord journeys and shapeliness of Broadbent’s tunes and Mancio’s imaginative lyrics and impeccable delivery, there’s nothing retro about the sensibilities that have fuelled them. And, perhaps in recognition of the pair’s emergence as songwriters with a growing following among fellow-performers as well as fans, they are simultaneously publishing The Songs Of Alan Broadbent & Georgia Mancio – their own songbook of sheet music to 33 pieces, evocative visuals, and personal thoughts by both artists on how those songs came to life.
On a Zoom call from Italy, where a sudden family loss has unavoidably taken her, Georgia Mancio begins by revealing that this classy overview of her partnership with Broadbent might never have emerged at this point in their lives, despite the swelling stream of new work the pair has been generating in cyberspace in recent years.
‘We hadn’t yet fully planned a second album, and though we’d been thinking about the book for two years, that wasn’t imminent either,’ Mancio says. ‘There never seemed to be the time to get it all done. But we were playing some gigs together in Germany and London – for the third edition of my Hang Festival at the Pizza Express – in October 2019 so we thought we’d record some of the new songs. We did one day in a studio in London, and then we left it there. A few months later the pandemic and lockdown arrived, and when it became obvious that live work wasn’t going to come back easily, I felt this urgency to do something productive and not stall any possibility of getting music out. So I handed it over to my long-time friend and trusted producer, Andrew Cleyndert – who had also recorded it – and we mixed it remotely.’
That ‘inseparable feeling’ Dave Gelly described in Mancio’s and Broadbent’s early work has grown palpably stronger with Quiet Is The Star. With only the piano for support, and on a collection of confiding songs demanding such delicate handling, Mancio has put herself in the most exposed position she could – but her care with every sound she makes, and Broadbent’s craftsmanship in burnishing the songs without getting in their way, gives the minimal lineup remarkable strength.
‘There were some new songs that did lend themselves to a possible quartet reading,’ Mancio points out. ‘But with the majority, it seemed more effective and integrated to do it all as a duo. It’s an album about love, but not exclusively in a romantic sense – that’s been done so many times, and it’s so easy to assume somebody else’s mantle if you try to repeat it. The ties we bind, I think that’s what it’s about. Who to hold close, who to maybe let go of. Songbook was very influenced by the loss of my dad, particularly on “The Last Goodbye” and “Lullaby For MM”. A lot of Quiet Is The Star was written on the back of losing my second parent and “Let Me Whisper to Your Heart”, the third track, is a tribute to my mum, who died unexpectedly only a few months before recording.’
As a former waitress at Ronnie Scott’s Club who cultivated a love of jazz from close proximity to some of its greatest performers, gave Gregory Porter his first UK booking on her ReVoice! festival, and has worked with some of the sharpest improvising partners on the UK scene, Georgia Mancio is well aware of being perceived as a jazz artist by many of her admirers – with all the expectations and assumptions that can mean. But she hopes that listeners of all persuasions will come to these songs with open minds.
‘Alan’s improvisation and compositions, for me, are intertwined,’ Mancio observes. ‘He’s a stunning soloist but the priority for both of us is serving the songs, getting the right emotional impact and nuance and doing the story justice. People will of course think of them as jazz songs because of our backgrounds, but mainly they’re supposed to just get you here’ (Mancio clasps her hands over her heart), ‘it has to be be something that moves you, I think.’
In September 2019, for an LJN story about Georgia Mancio’s impending third Hang Festival, the singer had reflected on the empathy between her and Broadbent, particularly in relation to their shared sense of what makes a good lyric. At the time, we passed over the nuts and bolts of what that might be, but we returned to that elusive question this time around.
‘There’s not a specific answer,’ Mancio says. ‘It’s that feeling of you know when you see it, you know when you’ve got it. Most of the time Alan says “that’s great”, or he suggests a word, phrase, section that could go deeper or be looked at another way. Fortunately he very rarely says “you got it completely wrong”‘ (laughs). ‘Occasionally, we both rewrite our parts until we really feel we’ve got the best result. That can be a nightmare but there’s a real honesty to it and you have to leave your ego outside! If it were me in Alan’s position, I’d find it hard to let go of work that I had been so close to – some of these songs are brand new but most are old, some are over 50 years old! But I think he always envisages a story when he writes – which is why he comes up with such great titles. He’s looking at getting on to the next stage and letting them become something else.’
If there’s a cinematic quality to the pair’s work, drawn from memories of people and places special to them as individuals of different generations living on different continents, it’s reflected not only in their music, but in their beautifully illustrated accompanying book The Songs Of Alan Broadbent & Georgia Mancio. Amid the pages of musical notation representing 33 of their songs come illustrator Simon Manfield’s atmospheric pen-and-ink drawings of children playing, a solitary old man brooding on a cherry tree that seems to have grown in harmony with his own long life, birds wheeling through clouds, and freely colour-washed images of restless seascapes and rising moons. The composers have also written their own brief, personal, and warmly unaffected notes on the origins of each song.
‘I’ve looked at songbooks for 20 years or more, but never really thought about them, beyond the notated music itself,’ says Mancio. ‘Doing our own, and with Simon Manfield’s illustrations having been such a big part of both Songbook and this album, we realised we wanted it to be something that was hopefully beautiful in itself, and maybe a bit of an insight into our personalities as writers. I love hearing the backstories of people’s material if I’m in the audience of a gig, so we wrote a little bit about each song and our process.’
As we say goodbye, we return to the subject of the Great American Songbook – a tradition with deep roots in the imaginations of Mancio and Broadbent which they both cherish, yet need to make their own. The singer has latterly shown that she has other ways of conceiving of the shapes of songs – notably in collaborations with the UK pianists Kate Williams and Tom Cawley. But she’s both unequivocal about the enduring importance of classic song forms in her life, and how they can still accommodate the woman she is, and will be.
‘You’re drawn by where you start,’ Georgia Mancio says without hesitation. ‘I started as a standards-singer so that’s my back catalogue in a way, my vernacular. But some of that music, particularly lyrically, is very rooted in that era. I don’t want to mimic or look back because I think it’s important to reflect your own times and truly use and develop your own voice and language. So whether I’m writing personally or politically, it’s because it’s something I need to express; something I believe in. Likewise with Alan, it’s not an intention to write in the Great American Songbook style – though of course that’s where much of his experience has been. I also hear the depth of his knowledge of classical music in his writing and his orchestral and big band work. So, like everything, you’re drawn to the familiar but not with the intention of carrying on that lineage unchanged.
‘With the seismic changes we are all experiencing right now – globally and personally – I think we have to truly follow our hearts. Be honest, have conviction and be brave. Make work and share it. And don’t wait. Now can also be the perfect time.’
PP features are part of marketing packages
Alan Broadbent and Georgia Mancio’s album Quiet Is The Star, and the illustrated book The Songs Of Alan Broadbent & Georgia Mancio, are released on 27 March and both are available for pre-order.
LINKS: Book:The Songs Of Alan Broadbent & Georgia Mancio
Categories: Feature/Interview (PP)