Theo Jackson - Shoeless and the Girl
(Dot Time Records DT9035. CD Review by Adrian Pallant)
In these days of quick-fix, fast fame, ten-a-penny singer/songwriters, the hope remains alive in many genres that genuine craftsmanship and musicality will out. Contemporary jazz has its own fine catalogue of distinctive, treasured piano vocalists… and it would appear that another is now entering the fold. Back in 2012, Kent-born Theo Jackson was discovered by Steve Rubie, owner of London's 606 Club (where he still regularly performs) – and Jericho, a quietly confident debut release of self-penned material, ensued. What raised eyebrows then was the distinctive Englishness of a trained musician who wasn't content with churning out standards and covers to gain popularity; but rather, here was a steeped-in-jazz songwriter, pianist and singer insistent on charting his own course. And sell-out London and Cheltenham jazz festival gigs confirmed his appeal.
New release Shoeless and the Girl finds Jackson (still early on in his career but already maturing as a creative musician) inspired by characters and themes of loneliness – the storytelling is a vital ingredient. And, though frequently wistful or emotionally charged, the album also displays attractive charm and balance. Intentionally recorded more or less live in the studio, with Jackson singing at the piano, it's clear that his music is influenced by mainstream pop and soul artists. Yet this couldn't be described as anything other than a jazz record, full of memorable vocal phrasing and slick instrumental finesse from Theo and his core trio companions Huntly Gordon (double bass) and Marco Quarantotto (drums, percussion).
Little Do You Know is a case in point. Opening the album with Jackson's clear tones and warm vibrato, it's an amiable swing which bursts into life courtesy of bubbling alto sax from visitor Nathaniel Facey (of Empirical). With a whistled intro reminiscent of Billy Joel's The Stranger, and caressed by the silky lyricism of guest Leo Richardson's tenor, Moonchild's spaciality and changing tempi reveal much about the writer's penchant for conveying atmospheres; and forlorn, lumbering ballad Lonesome George – with echoes of Joe Jackson's Is She Really Going Out With Him? – is curiously based on the true story of the Galápagos Islands' famed last remaining tortoise of his sub-species (an unlikely subject but, nonetheless, beautifully told). Title track Shoeless and the Girl documents the chance meeting of two differently lost souls; a song weighing positivity against melancholy, the line "no-one's really alone" is buoyed by the fluent flugelhorn cameo of Quentin Collins.
A huge fillip to Theo Jackson's abilities as a wordsmith came in the shape of Wayne Shorter's personal approval of the singer's lyrical interpretations of two of his classic numbers (from albums Adam's Apple and Speak No Evil). Such boldness can only be admired, though the sung poetry flows organically and respectfully in a whirling rendition of Footprints; and Wild Flower delivers the delicacy of unadorned voice and sumptuously chordal piano.
Bella's Coming Home poignantly explores parental anguish/relief as they anticipate the return of their runaway daughter, communicated superbly through the troubled uneasiness of both words and music; and the homey simplicity of Love and a Shoestring eases along to a Scott Joplin-suggested piano lick and an air of very early Elton John, though with darker harmonic twists. The French lyric of late-night Peu m'Importe might feel a tad awkward (perhaps it's that beguiling 'Englishness' in Theo's delivery), though the arrangement, including Richardson's cool tenor, is irresistible. Closing track Camberwell Butterfly is something of a revelation, its Frankie Valli-style piano groove preparing the ground for a soaring, Stevie Wonder-inspired vocal – and with radio-edit accessibility and duration, it should surely find primetime airplay.
It will be interesting to track the appeal of Theo Jackson, an accomplished, original jazz musician capable of wider/crossover reach – as the final track puts it, "I will follow you, I will see you come alive". Shoeless and the Girl indicates that he could already be fixed on that path.
LINK: Theo Jackson Interview