Ciyo Brown is a musician who has worked with greats of jazz, pop and reggae is getting vocal on his new album. This feature by John Bungey tells the story of a guitarist and “gentleman of jazz” finding his true voice.
“The concept behind the album is ‘vocal excursions with a tinge of guitar’,” says Ciyo Brown, guitarist and now urbane vocalist on his new release, Can We Pretend. “I thought some years ago that I wanted to explore my vocal range and capabilities, so this album was an invitation to myself to really work on my voice.”
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And so the London-based guitarist, accompanist to Mica Paris, China Moses, Suggs, Paul Weller, Jim Mullen, Pee Wee Ellis, Courtney Pine and a multitude more over the years, has stepped up to the microphone. He sings a mix of original material plus songs from pop, soul, reggae and jazz, including Lush Life, S’Wonderful and the title track, a soulful Bill Withers tune. The feel is polished and relaxed from this “gentleman of jazz” (a title conferred by a fan that has stuck).
Brown has given his vocal cords an outing on some of his previous six albums but this is his most committed excursion. The project dates back to a gig at the Pizza Express, Soho, where Brown says he wanted to try something new. “We filled the place up with people not knowing what they were going to get. Afterwards the manager said we had hit on something that could be quite popular.”
Brown, who was born in Jamaica but came to Britain as a baby, loved singing in choirs before he took up guitar. But it was his guitar-playing (always melodic, often jazz-shaded) that propelled his musical journey. “When I was 16 I was living in Birmingham and I started playing in a band with guys who were much older than me and the experience was immense. We travelled round the country and we played reggae, calypso, R’n’B, blues and pop. I was listening to Jimi Hendrix, who was a massive influence. I then discovered BB King, Buddy Guy, Cornell Dupree, Eric Gale, Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, Son House, Clapton and blues rock … then I was blown away when I heard George Benson’s In Flight album.” Brown began investigating the jazz greats: Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, Joe Pass, next came Miles and Coltrane. “So my musical tastes are very open,” he says.
That versatility has led to a diverse CV. High points he picks out include gigging with Mica Paris, working on Annie Lennox’s version of Bob Marley’s Waiting in Vain, playing with guitarist Martin Taylor and a day-long master class with Joe Pass.
But, whatever Brown’s musical victories, he has heeded parental advice given to him as a teenager and has never plumped fully for a music business career with its fads, fashions and monetary uncertainties. “My father said do not do music full-time, have it as a back-up. And I had this feeling that there were other things I was put on this planet for.” Thus Brown has worked as a Chartered Legal Executive and lecturer specialising in housing law but with music always “a very serious love”.
That second string has given Brown the power to pick his musical options. “I toured with [reggae band] Steel Pulse and it was an amazing experience. The music was brilliant, playing to 40 or 50,000 crowds supporting INXS and Robert Palmer. But this gave me enough insight into just what life is really like on the road. And that’s not for me. You’re away from family, you’re living out of suitcases and trying to sleep on tour buses – a great experience to have had though.”
Another great experience, one that Brown wouldn’t mind repeating, was meeting and having a long chat with George Benson, an influence and a kindred “gentleman of jazz”. “I often get compared to him, which makes me cringe!” Brown says with a chuckle. “I’m not trying to be him. Because I play guitar and I do the vocals and the scat thing people are always going to make the comparison … I’m not trying to be like him and I’m not in his league – I’m comfortable with what I do as Ciyo.”
And there’s plenty of achievement to be comfortable with. “I’ve worked since I was 16 so it goes back 40-plus years. I’ve done a bit of jazz, a bit of pop, reggae. It’s quite easy to forget all the work until you look at your résumé. It’s only when you update your CV you think, ‘Hang on a minute, I haven’t done too bad.’”
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LIVE DATES / LINKS: Ciyo Brown website
Ciyo Brown’s ‘Vocal excursions with a tinge of Guitar’ is at Pizza Express, Dean St, Soho, W1, on 22 March. BOOKINGS
Can We Pretend is out now
Categories: Features/Interviews (PP)