Joy Ellis: “I feel this is the first time I’ve been able to express myself as a piano player” She’s known as an up-and-coming singer-songwriter but for her third album, Peaceful Place, Joy Ellis has opted to record a purely instrumental jazz trio set. Interview feature by John Bungey.
If a valuable life skill is knowing how to turn a seeming disadvantage into an advantage then Joy Ellis‘s remarkable third album is a proof. The disadvantage was, of course, lockdown, the barren months that forced so many musicians to swap gigging for thumb-twiddling.
“I’d made two piano and vocal albums in 2017 [Life on Land] and 2019 [Dwell] and before Covid I was planning a bigger project with saxophones and strings,” says the London-based musician. “But when lockdown hit, all those plans fell through. “Instead I started improvising on the piano and recording it on my phone. I had this collection of ideas that I went into in more detail later and drew out some compositions.”
When the recording date was nearing Covid made it impossible for her regular guitarist Rob Luft to play, so instead Peaceful Place became a piano trio album. And it’s a delightful one – with some compelling melodies and an introspective north European feel; delicate, intimate – no notes are wasted in its pared-back sound. It’s no surprise to learn that Ellis’s peaceful place, as illustrated on the cover, is next to a Norwegian fjord (she had played a gig near Sognefjord in 2018). There are echoes of Tord Gustavsen and Marcin Wasilewski and a few fleet-footed rhythmic ideas that recall Esbjörn Svensson, but no slavish copying. Drummer Adam Osmianski, Ellis’s husband, deploys the delicate cymbal splashes, Henrik Jensen supplies quietly urgent double bass. Manfred Eicher (Mr ECM) really should clap ears on it.
Of course, this all may be a surprise to audiences and critics who have warmed to the shifting pop and jazz textures in the story-songs of her previous two albums. The Guardian loved the “poetic, impressionistic voyages” of her debut; Mojo saluted “cool poetic meditations on urban living”. The two albums were closer to jazz-era Joni Mitchell or the shapeshifting grooves of Esperanza Spalding than Nordic minimalism. Since graduating from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, those two albums have taken her round the world, from Ronnie Scott’s to Cork Jazz Festival to club dates in Kuala Lumpur.
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Ellis chuckles as she contemplates her sideways move. “I don’t know how the record is going to go down. I’ve always tried to push the fact that I’m a piano player, not just another singer. Obviously I want people to enjoy it but at the stage I’m at, if I don’t love it, then there is no point doing it.
“From what I read of other artists, they do an album and do get boxed in and labelled and then they want to do something different … I mean Van Morrison must be sick of playing Brown-Eyed Girl.
“For me the challenge was trying to make a trio album, especially among the absolute plethora of amazing piano players and piano trio albums. I knew it was going to be a bit risky but I really like writing so I hope that the compositions come through. Hopefully it’s a relaxing album that someone can listen to and take a load off their mind.
“With this record I feel it’s the first time I’ve been able to express myself as a piano player. When people have said, ‘I just want to express myself,’ I now understand what that actually means. That was kind of liberating and it was such a joy to do.”
After a launch gig at the Vortex in March there are plans to tour in the autumn. “It depends how this album is received but I’m leaning towards doing it as a piano trio at the moment.” Ellis also regularly teaches, “which means I don’t need to take gigs I don’t want to do”. She has started a Ph.D. (supposedly fulltime) investigating the gender disparity in jazz, and aims to revive her plans for a larger ensemble. Are there enough hours in the day? But then Ellis has form in turning a seeming disadvantage into an advantage.
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LINKS: Joy Ellis launches Peaceful Place at the Vortex, London N16, on March 24 – BOOKINGS
More info: joyellismusic.com
The first single from the album will be launched this Friday 4 March 2022
Categories: Features/Interviews (PP)