It’s not unusual to meet a church organist, a classical pianist, a jazz musician, an accompanist, or a DJ… what is unusual is to find them all in one person; Jonny Liebeck is such a person. Ahead of the release of ‘The Next Chapter’, which he’ll launch at Grow in Hackney on 9 August, he spoke about his varied musical career and his influences from Bach to drum and bass. Feature by Bruce Lindsay.
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Liebeck last spoke to LJN in 2020, when he released Mellow Mind. In the intervening years he’s been expanding his musical horizons. “I’ve always been into electronic music, so I taught myself to mix as a DJ, getting into vinyl records, deep house, jungle, drum and bass. When things opened up post-Covid I started doing a few gigs with the band [guitarist Boris Latinov, bassist Tom Mason and drummer Andrew McLean, all of whom appeared on Mellow Mind] and getting back into classical music. Then I produced my own electronic dance music, made a few deep house EPs, then released a jungle EP last summer. In the last year I’ve taken time out from jazz gigs. I’ve gone back to playing the church organ and I performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with my mum [soprano Ann Liebeck].”
Liebeck also found the time to write and record The Next Chapter: “I felt inspired to write new tracks for the jazz band. I recorded the album’s five solo piano pieces in the summer. We’d already recorded the band numbers but we re-recorded them last autumn. I wanted to take my time, get into the right head space. In the time away from jazz I was getting down on myself, thinking ‘Is it good enough?’. Then around April or May this year I was at a jam session at Grow in Hackney. The managers were enthusiastic about the new music, I started feeling good about the music again and so I booked a gig to launch the album.
The album title suggests change, moving on to something new. Liebeck agrees with this suggestion: “I’m 32 now, I feel like I almost grew up with two sets of parents, mum and dad, then my maternal grandparents who lived five minutes away. My grandad passed in 2018 and my gran passed earlier this year, so it’s kind of the end of a family era. Also, I’ve moved in with my partner, hence the track “Moving In.” Musically, “Intro” and “Outro” are the same music in different keys. I’m into big, emotive, film soundtrack music and with my taste in electronic music as well, I wanted the album to start and finish with some of that influence, an emotive but minimalist vibe. I wrote ‘Creative Territory’ and ‘Old Soul’ around the time of Mellow Mind, when I was still writing in a jazz-funk style, so they show something of where I’ve left off, a year when I was delving back into influences such as George Duke, George Benson and the pianist Jeff Lorber.”
“Grandad’s Wisdom” is Liebeck’s tribute to his grandfather and features a recording of him talking with his family about recovering from a stroke. “He was a wise man, he took me to practice organ in his local church in Acton every day after school. I wanted to capture how important he was in my life, to pay tribute to someone who helped me to become a musician.”
Liebeck uses Logic Pro software to create piano, bass and guitar sounds plus drum grooves when he’s composing. “When I’m writing a track I might start with the keyboard, add bass, head and melody for guitar, then a general groove for the drummer. Obviously, in solos they have freedom to take things where they want to. Andrew keeps the groove but I give him plenty of freedom to develop it.” “Jungle Prayer” is an excellent example of this approach: “I developed an AABA structure in a jazz style then we added a keyboard solo, one chorus, guitar solo, one chorus. Then Tom, who’s also into jungle, and drum and bass, suggested making the drum solo sound like a produced jungle track, the sort a club DJ might play. We put a basic two-chord pattern under Andrew’s solo. Producers will chop up breaks to create complex rhythms, but Andrew’s doing it alone, and live.”
The role of accompanist is another strand to Liebeck’s work and demands a different mindset from the role of bandleader. “I was brought up Catholic and started playing for services when I was thirteen. I play for a church service every week in Peckham, I’m an accompanist for London Youth Choirs and I work in the role with my mum. I’m reading music, following the singers. I’m back to my classical roots in a way. Leading a band, I’m more listening to the overall sound, keeping the band together throughout a performance.”
After the album launch, Liebeck has some plans he’s excited about. “We’ve got some more gigs to promote the album and I’m pushing for more performances with the band. I’m also starting a DJ collective, predominantly jungle, and we’ve got a potential residency planned.” Liebeck is clearly a musician who’s keen to keep broadening his influences and extending his musical boundaries. Bach, George Duke and jungle, he suggests, all come together in one track from The Next Chapter: “‘Changes,’” he says, “you can probably find hints of all three on that.”
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