Features/Interviews (PP)

Nicki Leighton-Thomas (new album, lyrics by Fran Landesman: ‘One Good Scandal’)

“‘There’s an honesty and integrity to Fran Landesman’s songs,” says vocalist Nicki Leighton-Thomas. “Straight from knowledge and from the heart – and she wasn’t afraid to deal with the dark side.” Leighton-Thomas became a friend of Fran Landesman (1927-2011) towards the end of the American-born lyricist and poet’s life. Leighton-Thomas’s new album is a collection of new lyrics by Fran Landesman – who wrote about and for Nicki. Interview feature by John Fordham.

Nicki Leighton-Thomas. Launch poster.

Improvising vocalists are sometimes grouched at by the jazz-averse for not seeming to care much about the words of songs – unless, maybe, they’re treated as more or less abstract sounds there to be stretched and twisted out of meaningful shape. But if it’s true that the most adventurously instrument-like singers, like the late Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter or Mark Murphy, could sometimes leave lyrics in the dust when the improv fancy took them, the very best songwriting has always been able to seduce good singers into taking good care of the words, even when they happen to be jazz artists as spontaneously wilful as those three. 

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Some of the best-kept secrets of songwriter/performer liaisons  on the British jazz scene for several decades past have involved collaborations between the late great American lyricist and poet Fran Landesman – who made her home in London from 1964 to her death in 2011 – and the skilful UK singers Ian Shaw, Sarah Moule, and Nicki Leighton-Thomas, with the latter two joined by classy composer/arranger Simon Wallace as pianist and MD. 

 Landesman’s most famous songs were the bitter-sweet 1950s classics ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most’ (eloquently recorded by Moule, as well as by stars from Ella Fitzgerald to Norah Jones) and ‘Ballad of the Sad Young Men’ – and all three British vocalists have brought their own distinctive styles to bear on many lesser-known gems among the prolific American hipster’s wise and witty insights into love, loss, headlong nights, and rueful mornings-after. But if Sarah Moule and Ian Shaw have brought a raft of jazz experience, augmented in Shaw’s case by subtle American pop/soul nuances, into Fran Landesman’s world, Nicki Leighton-Thomas memorably put her own spin on it back in 2001, with her fine debut album of Landesman songs, Candid Records’ ‘Forbidden Games’. 

That well-received set, including the adroitly beboppish Wallace on piano and an A-list horn section including Dave O’Higgins on tenor sax and Steve Waterman on trumpet, was illuminated by the then twentysomething Leighton-Thomas’s unselfconscious alertness to Landesman’s romantic nature and maybe even innocent disposition, as well as to the sassily hardnosed one with which she sized up life’s irresistible dreams and saw off its  reverses. Though she restrained the temptation to bend Landesman’s songs too far in her own direction, Leighton-Thomas sounded buoyant and even youthfully gleeful in embracing their author’s worldview – and on her return to performing, after a sometimes demanding 15-year family-raising break, she still does. 

 This month, the singer releases One Good Scandal, a new 12-track collection of Landesman originals, with almost exactly the same instrumental lineup as on Forbidden Games, unfurling even more coolly surefooted bop-swing and Latin grooves than they did the first time around. When we catch up on the phone after the 20-year gap since we spoke while she was on the hoof promoting Forbidden Games, Leighton-Thomas sounds as exhilarated by her memories of Fran Landesman’s place in her life as she ever has, and when she describes its history, it’s not hard to hear why. 

 ‘I’d trained in acting first,’ Leighton-Thomas says, ‘but I’d always sung – I had a little jazz band as a teenager in Mauritius, where I grew up, and sang in little pop bands when I came back to England. I thought my acting career would soon lead to doing Shakespeare, but I found myself touring Britain in a farce called ‘Murder By Sex’, and after a few months of that I knew I couldn’t do it. So I got singing gigs in clubs and restaurants, and when I was working at the Groucho Club, I met Simon Wallace, who was the musical director there. He’d already been working with Fran, and asked me to demo some of her songs. When we’d done about eight or nine, Simon invited me to a lunch at her house. It was a personal occasion, an inner sanctum, a meeting for old friends she’d known for years – so she definitely didn’t want me, a stranger.  But when I came in, we just bonded, between the front door and the sitting room, a real spark. And that’s where this all began.’

 Despite the half-century between their ages, the two felt closely connected – physically similar as young women, drawn toward the flipsides of conventionality, youthfully elated by a  shared dress sense (Landesman would sometimes contribute to Leighton-Thomas’ wardrobe), and above all bonded by a three-way stretch between their musical affinities as framed and guided by Wallace’s sharp ear and astuteness as arranger and pianist. 

 The creativity of that partnership is palpable all over One Good Scandal. Leighton-Thomas’s mix of carefree vivacity and confiding stealth steers her pure-toned assurance on the opening ‘Semi Detached’ (a matter-of-fact Landesman reflection on open relationships) while O’Higgins’ tenor and Waterman’s trumpet weave a purring counterpoint. The title track’s backward glance at life (‘I played the harlot, played the bride…now there’s nothing left to hide’) still anticipates the allure of one last disruption in the making, the dazed ‘Did We Have Any Fun?’ is a nostalgically rocking blues, ‘The Secret of Silence (‘I want to be mysterious, and I keep giving myself away’) is an atmospheric lyric with a compulsive backing, and ‘Hyde Side Blues’ (‘let me see your Mr Hyde side, the side you hide from me’) a variation on a favourite Landesman theme, the dark undercurrents that sabotage happy endings. The album’s last two tracks, ‘The Girl You Can’t Forget’ (Landesman’s early-2000s homage to the young Leighton-Thomas) and ‘Stranger’ feel like paired opposites, an admirer’s romantic fantasy or maybe a friend’s consolation set against the starkness of one’s own reflection in a mirror. 

 ‘I’d lost confidence having been out of the game for so long,’ Leighton-Thomas considers, as we talk about her return to the studio and the stage, ‘though I did keep my hand in with some studio backing singing for a producer called John Reynolds – including a song called “Making Sand” for an Irish singer-songwriter called Padraig Jack, which I had to sing in Gaelic and which made it to No 1 in Ireland in June! I also made a Dory Previn album in 2017 which I didn’t properly release because I wasn’t yet ready for the commitment of touring and promoting it. But I was contacted on Facebook by the novelist Richard Mason, a complete stranger who just wanted to tell me that he’d been playing ‘Forbidden Games’ all the while he was writing his first novel, as an 18 year-old. I thought, you know what, if that’s how somebody felt about it then, I can do this again – and realised there are so many fantastic Fran songs that still haven’t been recorded yet, although of course Sarah (Moule) has recorded quite a few. 

‘When I first met Simon at the Groucho Club, and he suggested recording those demos, I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with them as much as I did. But I was always into lyrics – Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Dory Previn – so Fran’s work fitted right in with the way I wanted to sing, with what I wanted to sing, they fitted with the sound I wanted to make.

 ‘There’s an honesty and integrity to her songs, straight from knowledge and from the heart – and she wasn’t afraid to deal with the dark side, the attraction you can feel, particularly when you’re young, to living slightly on the edge, in a dangerous zone. I think she was attracted to that, and I think I was too, at the time. Also, as an artist, you don’t want to be telling the same story over and over again. Or’ (she chuckles at the thought) ‘always saying things were happy ever after from start to finish, that’s just dull.’ 

“Fran Landesman gave me a beautiful picture as a wedding present…”

 It feels like Nicki Leighton-Thomas wants the story of her long idyll with Fran Landesman and her unique legacy to be happy ever after, just the same. Given the still-untapped resources of Landesman’s huge songbook, there’s plenty of great material to reveal, and the singer feels that there may be ways to frame it that she hasn’t considered yet. ‘I think Fran would have liked to be more recognised than she was,’ Leighton-Thomas says. ‘She made it on to “Desert Island Discs” so of course she was recognised, but she would have liked her songs to have gone further than they did, and hopefully we can still help to make that happen. She gave me a beautiful picture as a wedding present, which depicted a woman reaching toward a new moon, and on the back she wrote “Dear Nicki, keep on reaching for the moon, much love, Fran”. That picture hangs in my kitchen and keeps reminding me to do just that for her – get all those songs recorded. There are so many more to do…’ 

“…and on the back she wrote…” . Both images courtesy of Nicki Leighton-Thomas

Nicki Leighton-Thomas’s One Good Scandal is released on 33Jazz Records, on Friday October 7. PURCHASE

She launches it at the Playground Theatre, 8 Latimer Industrial Estate, 343-453 Latimer Road, London W10 6RQ (020 8960 0110). The show on Sunday October 9 is sold out. There are tickets for 18 October – BOOKINGS 

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