Prolific, imaginative and versatile pianist-composer Jonathan Gee showcases his “second string” – on his first album majoring on his singing. Interview feature by Rob Adams,
Jonathan Gee is talking about the creative process and how music can come together even when the musicians involved aren’t in the same room.
On his new album, The Lions Revisited, the pianist who has worked with saxophonists including Pharoah Sanders, Tony Kofi, Jean Toussaint and Bobby Wellins and who has added his creative nous to songs by singers such as Christine Tobin and Claire Martin, showcases another side of his talent: singing.
For one track, which had begun life some eight year before as an electronic instrumental, Gee first asked Kate Westbrook if she might write a lyric inspired by Cognac. The result was “a tour de force of a lyric” for which Gee created a melody connecting to the instrumental. He then sent an acapella version of him singing melody and lyric to bassist Andy Hammill, who created a bowed accompaniment that was uncannily close to the original electro track that he hadn’t actually heard.
“I love when that sort of thing happens,” says Gee whose idea for an album featuring his singing came during lockdown.
“I went through three or four months of not playing with other musicians, as was probably the case with most of us who play music for a living,” he says. “You don’t often get that amount of time to think about what you want to do next because you’re usually caught up in the round of gigging and rehearsing and just getting on with being a musician. So, I decided to stretch myself.”
He remembers Bobby Wellins who, even into his eighties, never stopped trying to become a better player and took that as his cue.
“Bobby always said that it was good to play beyond what you know, to allow yourself to play without a safety net,” says Gee. “And when you look at the legacies that all the greats such as Coltrane and Miles and others left behind, they were always looking to go further into their music than they’d gone before.”
Gee has always sung and was writing songs back when he was a teenage rock musician. He recorded three or four Billy Strayhorn songs sime years and has often included a couple of songs on gigs with his trio to add variety. He’s also worked as a singer-pianist on commercial gigs away from the jazz scene.
“It wasn’t a step into the unknown but putting an album of songs together was different from a trio album in that I didn’t have the complete repertoire ready and rehearsed to begin with,” he says. “I thought about what I wanted in terms of the shape of the album and although I had some songs in mind – I’d arranged Blackbird for a Beatles project I did with some Italian musicians a year or two back for example – there were people I wanted to involve. Kate Westbrook was one, because I love what she can do with words, and Alan Franks for similar reasons.”
The main criterion was to record songs he liked, felt inspired telling the story in the lyric, and which naturally grew into creative arrangements.
“When I wrote with Christine and Claire, I enjoyed being given a set of lyrics so that I could find my way into the atmosphere they suggested and develop the harmony and melody in keeping with what the words were saying. But with the two songs on the album that I wrote by myself, I had the melodies first and then the lyrical ideas just started to flow.”
In keeping with his determination to stretch himself, Gee chose to rework Miles Davis’ “Boplicity” and devised new melodies for the standards “You Go to My Head” and “But Not for Me”. He also selected the most difficult song from Brazilian master Antonio Carlos Jobim’s extensive canon, “Águas de março” (Waters of March), and sang it in Portuguese, a language in which, he freely concedes, he is not fluent.
“They say that Jobim’s lyrics in Portuguese are poetry and the English lyrics to his songs are closer to Tin Pan Alley,” says Gee. “Waters of March” has the only set of lyrics that he wrote in English and it’s not easy to sing in either language but I had to try. I did have a lesson in Portuguese beforehand so that my pronunciation was okay.”
With a fourteen-date tour with Jean Toussaint coming up and work on the horizon with Cleveland Watkiss, Denys Baptiste, Gaetano Partipilo and his various trios Gee’s opportunities to promote The Lions Revisited will for now be his regular London singing residencies at Archduke, Plaquemine Lock and Toulouse Lautrec. After the enforced inactivity brought on by the Covid pandemic, however, he is relishing being out on the road and doing what he loves.
“I like to stay busy,” he says. “And the more you play, the more you can find space in a piece to be creative. I was really lucky to play some gigs with Pharoah Sanders about ten years ago and he was the absolute master at opening up new spaces where you could improvise and go places in music you’ve never been before. That’s what being a jazz musician is all about for me.”
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LINKS: Buy The Lions Revisited
Categories: Feature/Interview (PP)
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