‘The Lions Revisited’) – London Jazz News
Prolific, imaginative and versatile pianist-composer Jonathan Gee presents his “second string” – on his debut album specializing in vocals. Interview article by Rob Adams,
Jonathan Gee talks 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, Lions Revisitedthe pianist who has worked with saxophonists such as Pharoah Sanders, Tony Kofi, Jean Toussaint and Bobby Wellins and who has added his creativity to songs by singers such as Christine Tobin and Claire Martin, presents another facet of his talent: singing .
For a track, which had originated some eight years earlier as an electronic instrument, Gee first asked Kate Westbrook if she could 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 the melody and lyrics to the bassist Andy Hammillwho created a bowed accompaniment eerily close to the original electro track he had yet to hear.
“I love it when this kind of thing happens,” says Gee, whose idea for an album featuring her singing came about during lockdown.
“I went three or four months without playing with other musicians, as was probably the case for most of us who play music for a living,” he says. “You don’t often have that much time to think about what you want to do next because you’re usually caught up in the round of gigs and rehearsals and still being a musician. So I decided to stretch. »
He remembers Bobby Wellins who, even in his eighties, never stopped trying to become a better player and was inspired by that.
“Bobby always said 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 legacy that all the greats like Coltrane and Miles and others left behind, they were always looking to go further in their music than before.”
Gee always sang and wrote songs when he was a young rock musician. He recorded three or four Billy Strayhorn songs for years and often included a few songs at gigs with his trio to add variety. He also worked as a singer-pianist on commercial gigs away from the jazz scene.
“It wasn’t a step into the unknown, but putting together a song album was different from a trio album in that I didn’t have the full repertoire ready and rehearsed to start with,” he says. “I thought about what I wanted in terms of album form and even though I had a few songs in mind – I had arranged Blackbird for a Beatles project I had done with Italian musicians a while ago. a year or two for example – there were people I wanted to get involved in. Kate Westbrook was one, because I like what she can do with words, and Alan Franks for similar reasons.
The main criteria was to record songs that he loved, felt inspired to tell the story in the lyrics, and that flowed naturally into creative arrangements.
“When I was writing with Christine and Claire, I liked to be given a set of words to find myself in the atmosphere they suggested and to develop the harmony and the melody according to what the words said. But with the two songs on the album that I wrote myself, first I had the melodies, and then the lyrical ideas just started flowing.
True to his desire to surpass himself, Gee chose to rework “Boplicity” by Miles Davis and imagined 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 vast canon, “Águas de março” (Waters of March), and sang it in Portuguese, a language in which, he readily concedes, he does not not speak fluently.
“They say Jobim’s lyrics in Portuguese are poetry and the English lyrics of his songs are closer to Tin Pan Alley,” says Gee. “Waters of March” has the only set of lyrics he wrote in English and it’s not easy to sing in either language but I had to try. I had a Portuguese lesson beforehand so that my pronunciation was correct.
With a fourteen-date tour with Jean Toussaint to come and work on the horizon with Cleveland Watkiss, Denys Baptiste, Gaetano Partipilo and his various trios, Gee’s opportunities to promote Lions Revisited will be his regular singing residencies in London for now with Archduke, Plaquemine Lock and Toulouse Lautrec. After the enforced inactivity caused by the Covid pandemic, however, he relishes being on the road and doing what he loves.
“I like to stay busy,” he says. “And the more you play, the more space you can find in a room to be creative. I had the chance to play a few gigs with Pharoah Sanders a decade ago and he was the absolute master at opening new spaces where you could improvise and go to musical places you had never been before.That’s what being a jazz musician is for me.
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