UK singer, pianist, composer and arranger Anthony Strong has a new album for imminent release – ‘Easy Sailing’. His distinctive mix of jazz, swing and pop has been honed by extensive UK and international tours. Lauded by Jamie Cullum and Rod Stewart, among many others, he has even played support to BB King. He talked about the stories behind the songs. Feature by Alison Bentley.
Anthony Strong kept a whiteboard in his kitchen during the pandemic with a list of songs which led to a new recording. “I was just playing through the list, and one would get crossed off and another would get added and so on,” he says. Choosing the order of the songs “just fell into place,” opening with Carmichael’s Skylark, with a subtle reharmonisation. “I probably was arranging before I knew what arranging was. I would be on the piano toying with songs, changing chords.” Studying at the Purcell School with Simon Colam and the Guildhall with Malcolm Edmonstone, Strong developed his skills, till he felt he had “…a style of my own: I guess I have one foot in jazz and one foot in pop- and I love my harmony.”
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Tenorist Brandon Allen features on Bernstein’s Maria (“I’ve toured a lot with Brandon- he’s a living legend, a phenomenal player.“) Another Bernstein song from the album, Lucky to be Me, goes back to his days at music school, where Strong worked in a duo alongside singer Stephanie O’Brien (Puppini Sisters). “I suppose I played the part of Bill Evans and Stephanie played the part of Tony Bennett! It was great fun.”
Two songs are closely associated with Chet Baker, and the album’s title is taken from the first lyric of Do It the Hard Way. “I just felt the title Easy Sailing goes so well with the cool relaxed nature of my music, but also what a great message: that no reward is worth anything without a bit of struggle.” Look for the Silver Lining features another aspect of Strong’s arranging: “I love to write a theme that ‘bookends’ the songs. And I just love the simplicity of this melody.”
Many songs feature strings, including the classic Disney ballad When You Wish Upon a Star, “a bucket-list song I’ve always wanted to cover,” and Celeste, a modern standard by Ralph Towner and Norma Winstone. “Callum Au did most of the string arrangements- he’s worked with Quincy, Cullum, Bublé… Callum totally understood the style and the sound I was trying to go for. I mentioned I wanted an almost ‘John Williams depth and broadness’ to it, and conducting the strings I could really feel it!”
Strong’s sense of swing is to the fore. (“They taught me how to swing at college…swing music is such a big part of what I do.”) Naming Kurt Elling and Chet Baker as inspirations, Strong learned many of Baker’s vocal solos at college: “I usually scat on gigs but I’ve never recorded it before. I wanted to change that this time and Beginning To See The Light has some great changes to sing over.”
Comes Love features a swinging piano solo by Strong. “When I started out I was influenced by McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea, but in terms of how I play now, I think I probably sound a bit more like Bud Powell, Bill Evans … more bebop, post bop. Some of that McCoy stuff still occasionally comes out when I play- it’s just who I am”.
The album includes a soulful cover of Crowded House’s Don’t Dream it’s Over, in a duet with LA-based singer Emmaline. There are also two, less jazzy original songs composed for this album. The gospel-tinged Minute by Minute was written with friend and composer Tommy Antonio, and the folky Any Old Place with singer Lauren Bush:“I just wrote this little melody one evening, recorded it and put it on Instagram and wrote: ‘I’m going to bed- someone write me a bridge!’ I woke up the next morning and Lauren Bush had written these amazing lyrics. We basically wrote the whole thing on Instagram.”
The album is out on 11 November with the launch at Piano Smithfield on 13 November “…featuring musicians from the album: Spencer Brown on bass; Joel Barford on drums; Nick Fitch on guitar. I love playing quartet with guitar, you get that real Nat King Cole/Diana Krall swingin’ vibe… and when I want to perform a bit more and play less, the harmony is still there. Sometimes I just want to get up from the piano and run around the stage like a rockstar!”
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