INTERVIEW: Mark Jennett (Album Launch 16th September)

Mark Jennett. Photo credit: Charlotte Knee

Singer Mark Jennett has been a fixture on the London Jazz circuit for a while. Writer and singer Tamsin Collison interviewed him about his route into jazz, his influences, and his forthcoming album ‘Everybody Says Don’t (Release date September 15th, launch September 16th).

Tamsin Collison: Mark, writing about your new album, Ian Shaw describes you as a singer “who sideswipes the deluge of post Sinatra crooners – yet homage to the great swinging vocal tradition is ever present.” How much have you been influenced by the American Swing tradition?

Mark Jennett: My Mum listened to music a lot and my two favourites when I was little were Frank Sinatra and Dusty Springfield. Mum had the EP of ‘Songs for Swingin’ Lovers’ and I learned ‘It Happened in Monterey’ note for note from the record. I loved Sinatra’s phrasing and I guess I learned from him that you don’t have to be confined to the original notes and phrases of a song, although it was a while before I could put a name to that and call it jazz. I think what I loved about Dusty was how she always told a story and that there was always so much honest emotion in her singing.

TC: Any other key influences?

MJ: Anybody who sings in their own voice, who doesn’t fake it. I loved Julie Andrews as a child, I think because she was so unaffected, and I was also an Aretha Franklin fan. I particularly loved the background harmonies on her records. My childhood ambition was to be a backing singer for Aretha, or better yet, for Gladys Knight. I really, really wanted to be a Pip. The first instrumentalist who struck a real chord with me was Dexter Gordon.

TC: So how did you move from aspiring soul diva into jazz fan?

MJ: I loved music, but at school I just couldn’t find anybody to play it with! I was into pop, soul and American swing, but everyone else was in punk bands. Much later, I began attending jazz courses at the City Lit. I think all the years of listening to Frank & Co had given me a stronger technical foundation than I realised and I found that things like responding to what an instrumentalist plays – and that they will also respond to your choices – felt very natural. Then I went on some intensive residential course where I finally found other people to play with and things took off from there.

TC: When did you start to perform in public?

MJ: I started out on the open mic circuit, which is absolutely terrifying. I have the greatest respect for anyone who does that – it takes real guts. Then, ignorance being bliss, I managed to blag my way into a playing gig at the Vortex pretty early on.

TC: How did your first album come about?

MJ: Things were starting to happen in terms of gigs when I suddenly got seriously ill and had to stop performing for a while. While I was recuperating, Anita Wardell suggested that I try putting an album together which she would produced. That album, The Way I Am, was a quite a learning curve. We had the basic arrangement ideas and then the band fleshed them out in the studio as we recorded. We only had one properly formal arrangement - pianist Rob Barron set Paper Moon for me. I loved that but it’s only now that I've had the opportunity to do another album entirely composed of tailor-made arrangements.

TC: Which leads us neatly onto ‘Everybody Says Don’t.’ Tell us a bit about this new release.

MJ: Everybody Says Don’t came about as a result of my meeting Geoff Gascoyne who, as well as being a great bass player, is a brilliant arranger. Like me, Geoff is influenced by a huge range of musical styles, and I knew he had done a couple of albums featuring jazz arrangements of pop tunes. Originally I just asked him to arrange a couple of songs I was struggling to put together myself but, when we started work, it was clear that we had a lot in common musically (and that I could learn a lot from him!) and we decided to develop an album of new arrangements together. We both have very eclectic musical tastes, so the tracklist combines songs that come from the fields of pop, soul and musical theatre as well as American standards. We have tried to take familiar songs and invite people to maybe think about them a bit differently.

TC: Some examples of those familiar songs? 

MJ: Quite a few: while some people see Wives and Lovers as just patronising and sexist, I’ve always thought it’s more of a ‘be-careful-what-you-wish-for’ song – maybe Hal David was thinking of all those unhappy wives we now see in ‘Mad Men’ - so now it’s in 5/4 with some wonderfully dark harmonies. We’d both separately had the idea of doing Just One of Those Things as a ballad. Geoff reharmonised it brilliantly and, for a change, it now comes from the viewpoint of the person being dumped rather than the dumper. You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught from South Pacific has important things to say about how prejudice develops and I think bringing out the prettiness of the tune somehow makes the message starker. It’s amazing how a new arrangement can transform the interpretation of a familiar song.

TC: Did you have a concept for this album?

Mark Jennett: Originally, it was just a personal take, musically and emotionally, on some songs that I feel very close to. However, reviewing the final tracklist, I realised that a lot of them question whether people should need or have to conform – and to whose rules – which is something I feel quite strongly about.

Tamsin Collison: Thanks, Mark. A pleasure chatting to you and best of luck with the launch.

ALBUM LAUNCH: Everybody Says Don’t (Jazzizit) will be launched at St. James Studio, Victoria on Tuesday 16th September at 8.00pm with Geoff Gascoyne, Tom Cawley, Sebastiaan de Krom, Martin Shaw and Josephine Davies.


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