Peter Skinner Gets Around

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Like some other blues and jazz singers, Peter Skinner, is both a ‘wild boy’ and a ‘tender crooner’.  A bad boy who is really good, a good boy who can be bad, in a jazz key.  Or maybe it’s the other way around.  Either way, it’s a new epoch in his musical life.  After a long and flourishing career in schools education, matched by a night life as a gigging vocalist, Peter is now hanging up his amateur credentials and undertaking the experience of professional training in music theory and performance at the Institute of Contemporary Music and Performance.

 

Over the past three years I have heard him make a jazz crowd at the Limehouse White Swan dance to his hootchie-kootchie man, and I admit that I have teared-up while listening to him sing jazz standards of broken hearts, aging hearts, and sweet hearts. His voice is sort of raddled, but the yearnings are heartfelt.

 

I met him for coffee and a chat a few weeks ago at the Euphorium Bakery in Belsize Park, where he greeted me suffused with the spirited air of a man going somewhere.  Smiling and enthusiastic, Peter explained how he is taking to his gratifying, fast paced, hard-working, and physically exerting life of what he calls ‘synoptic’ musicianship.

 

What he means by that term is that the Higher National Diploma course he is on offers a comprehensive view of many areas of musicianship, including vocal and performance technique, working with and leading a band, arranging tunes, and more. Best of all, as he says, this vocational course will prepare him for work in professional environments and/or for doing an Honours degree in vocal performance.

 

While he described, with an unmistakable hint of pride in such lazing about, his usual practice schedule as “very poor, irregular, and amateurish”, with feedback from all his teachers mentioning “poor support and inconsistency,” he is now working a strong programme of ‘hard, hard’ practice and collaborative jams with his often younger colleagues.  His humility is a bit at odds, however, with his musical history.  He began playing piano as a twelve-year old, learning in parallel to the graded courses.  He then became a folkie, and played guitar for vocalists and folk groups. He moved to playing blues and jazz in the mid-1970s.

When I asked him how he came to play and sing, he told me,

I have always been interested in blues and jazz. The critical moment came when a friend died suddenly of CJD. He led a rock and roll band called Route 66. His son decided to curate a memorial concert in aid of CJD charities and when we gathered at a studio in Beckenham, I was deputed to sing at the concert as there was no-one else. My first blues utterance was Hootchie Coochie Man. I just decided to carry on.”

The band with a much-changed line-up is still playing at functions and open mikes as “Blue Turning Grey.”And like others who mostly ‘stay outside the law’, Peter remains a supple choral vocalist, and singing for the last 8 years in classical choir societies has widened Peter’s vocal range and interests.

Peter modesty describes “my musical knowledge as an incomplete jig-saw with many pieces missing,” which sounds just the right state to be in – ready to absorb and learn new things, and importantly, to think beyond the conventions of his trade.

As he leaves the café to return to Kilburn, the Parnassus of Vocal Performance, he adds “I just thought that what I really want to do is to write whole band arrangements”. What’s more synoptic than that?

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JANET MCCUNN AN IMPRESSIVE IMPRESSARIA

McCunn at a Belsize Park cafe, and while we drank coffee and marvelled at the stunning London summer, we talked about how she has become the beating heart of many of venues and ventures of the South West London’s jazz  and open-mic scene .  Petite and with gleaming eyes,  Janet has been cheerfully active in promoting jazz  for over 15 years now: singing, organising open-mic gigs and Jazz Festivals, and generously helping new and young Jazz singers find their way in this creative, improvisational art of music.  A participant as well as an observer, Janet is an accomplished  jazz singer herself, which has given her both performance and organising opportunities.  I asked her how she came to Jazz singing:

“I was introduced to the Richmond Jazz School by a friend back in 2003, when I went to see her in a lunchtime concert there and decided to have a go myself. I signed up for the beginners’ class and started in 2004. I first sang in an open mic at a pub near Richmond Bridge called ‘The Rising Sun,’ where I made many friends. This event later turned into a jam session for musicians and singers, and I took over its organisation when the previous organiser left –that regular gig ran for a few  years, until that pub changed hands and we moved to a different venue, where  I found myself running the weekly jam session for about three more years in a pub/restaurant near Kingston Bridge called ‘The Swan.’

Janet’s work in organising these jazz sessions led her to become a regular singer at jazz venues. She had a five-year residency, beginning in 2010, at ‘The Tea Box’ in Richmond: it met monthly, and Janet introduced two guest singers each month, who each shared a set with her. This has proven to be a reliable pattern for Janet’s jazz singing. ‘The Tea Box’ gig was also to lead on to Janet’s on-going collaborative musical partnership with pianist Terence Collie, (Mood Indigo Events),  starting with their first joint project, a three and a half year residency at ‘Retro Bistro’, a French restaurant in Teddington. This jazz night, led by Collie’s quartet, featured top-line guest artists. Janet hosted and sang two songs in the second set each time

I asked Janet a question that we always like to hear about: practice! “What sort of practice schedule do you follow?”    I don’t have a schedule as such. In the past I went to weekly classes at the Richmond Jazz School and also had private lessons. Now I practise at home, and perform live at our Jazz Cafe Posk gig every month, as well as going to the odd jam session. I’ve also been on a number of workshops over the years, both abroad (summer schools) and at home.

And from my own long struggle with organizing my songs, keys, and charts into some sort of order, I asked her how she organises her repertoire. “I used to have a file with charts in alphabetical order, but it became  very heavy, but I now have everything on my iPad in Ireal. I use that when I go to jam sessions as most musicians use Ireal Pro and find the songs quickly on their phones or iPads. For jam sessions I just choose a song in the moment, but for gigs, I plan ahead and make a play list which I  email in advance to the instrumentalists. I like to say a few words about each song, and sometimes I will sing numbers which illustrate a common theme.

One of the chief wonders of Janet’s portfolio of jazz events is the TW12 Jazz Festival, which Terence and Janet have produced and organised annually since 2013. “This year was the fifth TW12 Jazz Festival we’ve run. We started it as a one-day event in 2013 and extended it over the years. This year it was a three-day event in three different venues, all with the TW postcode. We book top-line musicians as well as local students and some student bands. This year our headline artist, flown in from the US, was Geoffrey Keezer, one of the world’s top jazz pianists, with Canadian vocalist Gillian Margot. Other headline artists have been Jason Rebello, Gwilym Simcock, Kyle Eastwood (Clint’s son), Femi Temowo and the Engines Orchestra.   We spend weeks planning, organising and promoting without funding, so it’s a challenging and full-on job! We rely largely on volunteer helpers during the festival though do employ a top rate sound engineer.”

Janet’s favourite singers include the cream of the crop — Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, and Dinah Washington — and among contemporary vocalists — Georgia Mancio, Anita Wardell, and Jo Harrop. “When I have heard Kurt Elling at the Barbican next month, maybe I will add him!”

I asked Janet to muse on the best piece advice she has been given over the years: “To sing from the heart and not compare myself with others or try to sound like others. Also never to let ego get in the way.  I have been told that I sing with sincerity and that means a lot to me.

So, what’s next for you? ” We’re on a summer break at the moment but we start back at Jazz Cafe Posk in September with our ‘Janet’s Jazz Night’ (not my idea to call it that!). This is a gig in three sets, the first one being instrumental with Terence Collie Trio plus a special guest instrumentalist, the second being a vocal set with myself and a guest vocalist and the third one (which starts late) being a jam session open to singers and musicians. Our next Posk night on 15th September will feature Mornington Lockett as guest on sax.

“We also run a monthly jazz concert at the Riverside Arts Centre in Sunbury on Thames called Riverside Arts Jazz. We’ve had some excellent guests there joining Terence’s trio including John Etheridge on guitar and we had Jason Rebello doing a sold-out solo piano concert last year. We regularly do tribute gigs to famous musicians/composers such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Michael Brecker, Stan Getz plus more, which seem to go down well with our Sunbury audience. On 1st October we have Anita Wardell doing a Betty Carter tribute. I don’t sing at these but I host them and take joint responsibility for promoting and running them.”

 

Wow!  I am worn out from the intensity and drive and accomplishments of  Janet’s jazz world.  The interview convinced me that Janet’s  experience offers an excellent demonstration of how off-stage work can bring about more time on-stage performing. Why not look around your neighborhood for cages and restaurants, and ask if they want to try a monthly jazz night — and offer to arrange one evening as a trial?    And when you find a pianist who really suits you and your voice, why not ask that person to be your ‘first choice’ for gigs?

And we hope to see Janet McCunn at Sunday Jazz at the Windsor Castle before too long — if she can find the time!

Mood Indigo Events website: www.moodindigoevents.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Architect of Song. Juliet Wood

Annie J interviews Juliet Wood:

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I met with the jazz singer and architect Juliet Wood at a café in Belsize Park, sitting alfresco and sipping summertime cold drinks. I have heard Juliet sing at Vocals at Vortex, at the Toulouse Lautrec, and only a few weeks ago, at Harold Saniten’s Girl Power night at the Crazy Coqs. She has a rich smooth voice, clear as Ella; and when she is in the mood and in her Tracey Neuls high heels, as witty and clever as the writers of the be-bop and vocalese tunes she sings.

Juliet has thel to be both a classical and a jazz singer.

“Mine was a musical family. My dad used to love singing the Messiah, but he also sang us lullabies. He played the piano, and loved Chopin. My dad had very few records, by today’s standards, but he loved Souza marches, James Last dinner jazz, and Simon and Garfunkel. As a family, we listened to The Temperance 7, a 1920s-style jazz band.”

{AJ: And I see that The Temperance 7 are still touring in 2017, with 200 years of service among all those who have been in the band!}

“I did a lot of music at school: I used to play guitar, violin, alto sax as well as singing in school choir; but when I was a teenager, I saw myself more as a folksinger. I became the ‘girl with a guitar,’ and I used to get gigs in restaurants, playing folk music.”  Juliet’s repertoire included some Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon songs, but as well, some traditional Lancashire folk songs.

Juliet looks back at that period as one in which

“I did some songs about Manchester and they were industrial songs, like the one about the ‘Manchester Chamber Maid,’ which is a bit racy; there is some sort of commercial traveller, and who makes a Chambermaid pregnant…” and one by Ian McColl and Peggy Seeger, ‘The fireman’s not for me,’ about an engine-driver fireman, and how you can’t trust them.”  Juliet wryly added, “His one love is the engine, his wife.

“I carried on with sax lessons into my 20’s and used to play occasionally – at the first office I worked in we had a cover band that played for office parties, and I’d either sing or join the horn section!”

Juliet’s singing life still swings among genres: “I don’t think I really started singing classical music seriously until I was in my late teens, in 6th Form College.  When I was at school, where we had a good music department, I sang in a big choral society choir and a motet choir and a madrigal group.   From when I was 17, I sang in the Greater Manchester Chorale, which used to do concerts broadcast on the radio on Saturday nights. 

When I went to University, I joined another madrigal group at UCL, and an Opera company there, and it was always a UK premiere. I sang in an opera by Verdi, “Uberto”, which was probably its one and only UK performance.  I finally did my Music O level then”.  

When you listen to Juliet’s jazz tones, you can hear the clarity of her ‘head’ voice as a legacy from her classical work – she goes up to the top of the room and as smoothly returns to jazz rich lower timbres.

Juliet’s interest in jazz began with Ella Fitzgerald, but with Ella’s encyclopaedia of the American Songbook: Ella producing the standard for standards.

 “But when I went to College, in my 20s I gradually acquired cassettes; one with a track at the end with Ella singing “Lady be Good”, with the most fantastic scat at the end, and I used to try singing this along with her, and I couldn’t sing it, and it was just too complicated for me, and I think at that point, I put scat on a pedestal as something that I couldn’t do, but aspired to be doing! After I met Greg, my husband, who has very eclectic tastes in music,  I heard more interesting jazz, and we began going to some more interesting jazz events. Greg was a modern music person.”

Juliet and Greg keep up with the contemporary jazz scene: “We go to gigs about three times a month – Pizza express, 606, sometimes Ronnie’s Scott’s.”

We live in an open-mic-rich city here in London, and I asked Juliet to speak about her experiences in the amateur scene:

“I started going to open mics quite a few years ago – but after I first started learning jazz it took several years for me to pluck up the courage to go along. 

My first one was at Vocals at Vortex, a monthly open-mic begun by Brian Shaw Romy Summers & Bob Stuckey. I sang a slightly obscure song “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” which caused some confusion as it was written by Charles Mingus, not Ellington.”

Juliet now sings at least once a month at open-mics, “so I have a “deadline” for getting new things up to scratch”.  Her venues include our Sunday Jazz at the Windsor Castle, and the Nelson, Crazy Coqs, and SUFS at the White Swan Tavern in Limehouse. Her performance at Crazy Coqs gave her the opportunity to sing in a more gig-like event “Crazy Coqs was nice because we had time to rehearse with the pianist and the bass player.  So, compared to an open mic you can feel a bit more confident about how things will work out in performance, which allows me to tame the nerves a bit.”

Juliet is a student of jazz singer Clare Foster and attends Foster’s weekly Masterclass. “Clare is my mentor, and she has given me has given me lots of good advice to help me sing more in the jazz idiom.  I now sing with less vibrato –  and I have a wider range of styles: I like the complexity of chords and being  ‘in the thick’ with the harmony, not singing the top line.  Clare also taught me how to become more conversational in my singing, speaking them through and then adding pitch. I love vocalese, and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. I love to sing those jazzy blocks of phrase and melody. The singers I admire change over the years. There are always more things to discover.  But Ella, always. Annie Ross, Norma Winstone, Joni  Mitchell”.

  I asked Juliet to speak about her practice schedule, as we all can learn from each other about how to organise and to vary our rehearsal time!

“I usually go to a jazz class once a week, and a choir practice once a week, and then have a solitary practice session.  I start with warm-ups, e.g. runs of scales, humming, lip trills, and scales, aiming to stretch my voice at either end of my range.  I also do some singing while listening to myself through head phones.  And I also sing sections of pieces to get things right. Since I also sing in a choir, some practice is note bashing for that, or more intensive practice when I have solos or have to face auditions. What I’m working on is driven by the next deadline, class, open mic. I learn lyrics on the tube; walking is also good way to drum them in.

I have a “piano” on my iPad which I can plug myself into when travelling, to use time checking tricky bits.” 

What’s Next for Juliet:

“More of the same, more singing, more often, maybe singing more gigs; it would be nice to do the occasional paid gig. I think that what I want to do, really, is to keep on learning, and absorbing stuff.  I would like to get more confident about improvising.”

“My Style” – “I am still finding my style.”

Janet McCunn writes about the June 2-4  TW Jazz Festival:

The TW Jazz Festival started back in 2013 when pianist Terence Collie and I were working together on a local monthly quartet gig in a French restaurant and Terence suggested we put on a jazz festival in our local area in SW London. At first I thought he was joking, but then realised he was quite serious!

The festival has grown from a one day event in one venue to a three day event in three different venues, this year all with TW postcodes – Richmond, Sunbury and Hampton Hill. Over the four years many award winning and top rate artists from around the world have performed including Gwilym Simcock, Kyle Eastwood, Gilad Atzmon, Nigel Price, John Etheridge, Georgia Mancio,Anita Wardell, Andrew McCormack, Jason Yarde, Kate Williams, Gareth Lockrane, Partikel, GabrielGarrick and last year Femi Temowo with the Engines Orchestra who were recorded at Hampton Hill Theatre for BBC Radio 3. As well as these internationally renowned jazz stars we have involved local students from the Richmond Music Trust and some local performers. Terence’s quartet (TC4) is playing on the Sunday and my set this year (Janet and Friends) will feature two young rising star vocalists on the Saturday with the Meredith White Trio.

This year we are thrilled to have internationally acclaimed and multiple GRAMMY-nominated US pianist, composer and arranger Geoffrey Keezer closing the festival on Sunday evening. He will also be taking a workshop (a first for us) alongside featured vocalist Gillian Margot.

Our festival this year has three very comfortable venues, all with grand pianos (hired in specially for the Sunday concerts at Hampton Hill). We receive no funding for this and with the exception of the professional sound engineers on Sunday, we rely largely on volunteers to help us during the three day event. It’s certainly an ambitious project and labour of love! Ticket prices are very reasonable and there are many different options, plus one free event each day.

a blog for London jazz singers

Welcome to the first issue of SNJ. We are a group of singers who meet to sing Jazz the first Sunday in the month.   We aren’t professionals, but our instrumentalists are, and we are all dedicated to the practice and enjoyment of all kinds of modern jazz, from New Orleans Second Line through the Great American Songbook and into Vocalese, Scat, and Improvisational  song invention.

Our Group was founded by jazz singer Tina Learmonth and compère Dominic Laffy, and we meet at the Windsor Castle Pub on 98 Park Road, Marylebone, London NW1 4SH, 020 7723 9262. We are a subscriber-list jazz event, with 22 current subscribers, and an open-mic at the end of the second set with six slots open each time. We suggest you come early to sign up for the open-mic slots because they go fast.

Bring two copies of your charts with chords and melody in the right key for our pianist and bassist. We have the occasional guest instrumentalists,  so bring additional Eb and Bb charts.

Our blog exists to service our community of singers as well as to advertise gigs, workshops, and other events at which our singers and instrumentalists will be performing.