Neal Richardson (new album ‘The Maximalist’ released 16 June 2023)

“Once jazz is in your blood, you never escape,” says pianist, singer and impresario Neal Richardson. “I love it and couldn’t bear to do anything else, really.” His second album, The Maximalist is released on Splash Point Records, through distributor Proper, on 16 June 2023. Feature by Martin Chilton.

Neal Richardson, who was born in Croydon in 1966, jokes that his vibrant second album The Maximalist, has come a lot faster than his first CD, 2014’s Better Than the Blues, which he quips “was 48 years in the making”. The Maximalist features a nicely eclectic mixture of re-worked standards and his own thought-provoking compositions.

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Among the covers is a version of “You are My Sunshine”, a 1940 classic that is guaranteed to lift your spirits. “It is a brilliant song,” Richardson tells LondonJazz News in a zoom call. “It is often the simplest songs that are the most effective. I discovered that one thanks to Jo Fooks, who plays saxophone on the album. She discovered the Scott Hamilton version with Gene Harris, who is one of my favourite piano players, and as soon as I heard it, I thought, ‘Oh man, yeah’.” The version of “Come Rain or Come Shine” is a tribute to the genius Ray Charles, a man Richardson calls “one of my three or four all-time heroes”.

The album explores a range of emotions about the testing journey that life is for all of us. The strapline extols “an album about false riches, belief, folly, greed, love, connection and hope”. “I wanted the album to tell the story of what I felt I had been through. I also wanted it to be a reasonable kind of document for me about where I am at musically,” he says. “The album is a story that starts with a statement of the problem, examining how life can drag you down, but also saying that hopefully the redemption is in finding people you love and who love you.”

One of the most affecting tracks is a cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night”. “I thought I might get pilloried for putting this on what Is supposed to be vaguely a jazz album but a good song is a good song,” Richardson explains. “In the end I wear two hats, because I have run a record label for 20 years, but I am first and foremost a musician, and that means two things: that I will always be learning and studying my craft – and also that I have learned to go completely with my heart. I say of that song that ‘sometimes despair needs company’. I have known a lot of sadness in my life as well as happiness and sometimes we all need something to get us through the night – and that could be a metaphor for life.”

Richardson, who took some vocal lessons from his friend Claire Martin during the pandemic, blends deftly with a talented band featuring Fooks, his wife Sue Richardson on trumpet, Mark Bassey on trombone, Luke Rattenbury on guitar, Alex Eberhard on drums and Richardson’s regular duo partner Miles Danso on double bass.

He believes that all the musicians bring “different flavours” to The Maximalist. Danso, for example, is a big fan of Duke Ellington and brings his own infectious playing to an album that features the swing track Comes Love. Meanwhile, guitarist Rattenbury plays a lot of Afrobeat and salsa in his other work and Richardson says that is part of why he excels at a “rhythmic approach”.

Richardson and his wife Sue have been married since 1995 and have been playing together professionally since starting out full time as cruise ship musicians. “We were sharing a cabin so early on we had to quickly establish a way of separating our relationship from our working relationship and we have always been quite strict about that. I have always been the pianist in her band, poor thing, and her playing is perfect for my material because she is a very melodic trumpet player and that is what I always wanted.”

I ask about the time Sue played a gig in Vancouver for VIP guest Margaret Thatcher. “It was with a big band, on tour in Canada, and there is a fantastic picture where Margaret Thatcher is greeting someone and Sue is in the background looking absolute daggers at her,” says Richardson with a laugh. “She is very proud of that photograph.”

I suggest that one of his own gigs, playing for George Clooney on his private yacht at the Cannes Film Festival, sounds more fun. Did Clooney get the chance to join in, following the footsteps of his famous 1950s singing aunt, Rosemary Clooney? “I was kind of hoping he might want to come up and sing but he was very busy with his duties as it was a charity fundraiser,” recalls Richardson. “It was a very small private party and the tickets cost £30,000. Brad Pitt and some of the other Ocean’s 11 cast were there. I took a break at the bar at one point and my elbow touched Brad’s elbow. I joked that immediately all my skin ailments disappeared. George Clooney came up at the end and told us it was a lovely show.”

Richardson’s raconteur skills are part of what draws audiences to his shows and although his lighter side comes across in tracks such as the happy “Jim Jam Blues” and the Ramsey Lewis influenced instrumental “No Better Blues”, his questioning nature is evident in compositions such as “Opium” and “The Cage (When Will It End?)”. He says he started writing the chorus for Opium, a song he says is “all about religion and its tenacious tentacles”, when he was 25. “I had a very religious upbringing, which I sort of chucked out, and it took me a long time to build up the courage to write the verses and finish the song. There is a slightly melancholy feel and it’s a very personal thing to me, about the journey I had.”

Another song he describes as contentious and provocative is “The Cage”, a song about “existential and climate angst”, to which audiences have responded well. A song that strikes a happy chord with audiences is “The Cold Sea”. Richardson has lived in Seaford for 23 years and he has been swimming through winters for eight years. “The ocean is nature’s natural highway and I love the thought that in theory you could float a little paper boat off the British sea and it could end up anywhere in the world. When I am immersed I feel connected to my own childhood and swimming puts things into context all the worries that you have. Sue has been doing it for the past couple of years, too, so she clearly caught the lunacy.”

We discuss the disaster that Brexit has been for the music industry, and touring in particular, and Richardson has clearly put an enormous amount of graft into recovering from the pandemic. “I was running six jazz clubs under my Splash Point jazz brand and when Boris Johnson announced the first lockdown, I lost 107 gigs in two hours” he explains. “It has taken two years since lockdown to build it back up. Last year was horrendous because people were still scared to come out and sit in a room with one another. It’s understandable but completely counter to the societal creatures we are – and thwarts the power of music to be a great healer.”

Richardson, who has performed in more than 50 countries, including with his acclaimed show “Not King Cole”, has been on tour in Germany promoting The Maximalist and says the best thing about playing live is the communication on stage and with the audience. “I love what comes back from the crowd,” he says. “If I haven’t connected with an audience by the end of the night then I feel I have failed,” he says. “I also hope that my new album will bring pleasure to people and, dare I say pompously, make them think a bit.”

Album Cover

PP features are part of marketing packages

The Maximalist is released on Splash Point Records on 16 June 2023. ORDER VIA PROPER MUSIC

For details of live performances see nealrichardson.com.

Neal Richardson is on Twitter and Instagram at @splashpointjazz

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