INTERVIEW: Alan Broadbent (UK tour dates with Georgia Mancio tonight 22 Sep to 9 Oct 2015)

Alan Broadbent and Georgia Mancio
Photo credit: Andy Sheppard / from

Born in New Zealand, resident in New York, pianist, arranger and composer ALAN BROADBENT is working with British singer Georgia Mancio. Their tour starts tonight. She’s written lyrics to fifteen of his tunes. In this interview he talks about the craft of songwriting, about the two Grammys he won for his arrangements for singers (Natalie Cole and Shirley Horn); working with Sheila Jordan, Irene Kral and Charlie Haden’s Quartet West, and arranging for Diana Krall and Paul McCartney. Alison Bentley interviewed him last week:

London Jazz News: Have you worked with many lyricists before?

Alan Broadbent: I know [pianist/songwriter] Dave Frishberg very well. I brought Heart’s Desire over to him one night, because I had finally made some kind of breakthrough, according to my own ideals, of writing a beautiful song. You couldn’t change a note without breaking the fabric or the line. Dave instantly saw that, and as Georgia Mancio does, he took my title and ran with it. Dave chose that tune because it meant something to him; not only the tune itself, but the connotation of Heart’s Desire- his two sons, and what he wished for them in a personal way, although the feelings are universal. Mark Murphy did one called Don’t Ask Why. My tunes have been in the closet for so many years, some since I was seventeen years old, so they span my lifetime. There’s that thing about trying to hold on to your own art. I guess it’s a variation of ‘to thine own self be true’. You just get better at what you do, if you’re true. So many of my contemporaries that I grew up with went with the tide of whatever the modern style was, but I never could play fusion. I always wanted to compose and have that feeling of jazz. And I kept writing these songs that had nothing to do with the course of the future of music- it just stayed with me, and I do believe I got better.

LJN:  You once said you were always looking for a deeper feeling of communication in music- do lyrics help you with that?

AB: I think they do. The thing with Georgia is she found the key to each title with my tunes. I’m not Mahler- I’m stuck with my standard songs- but I do believe because of my jazz tradition, these little songs have a deep feeling. Billie Holiday sings a simple lyric and it transcends that into me and you. It’s what my teacher Lennie Tristano called a ‘life force’. So there’s deepness in these songs that are beyond you and me, hopefully, because we’re of a piece, writing this feeling. It’s just a matter of translating that feeling into notes and words.

LJN:  Have the tunes that Georgia has written lyrics for been recorded before?

AB: At least half of them haven’t been recorded before. They didn’t really have an outlet until the lyrics validated them.

LJN:  Why did you choose those particular tunes?

AB: They’re the strongest for me. Most of them, you can’t change a note, and I think- I dare to say- that I’ve added to the repertoire of the standard song. When Georgia and I do this, it’s not about trying to reproduce something that existed before, because the feelings are now. The music comes from now, even though my style perhaps could be called an older style, because I have chord changes. What pop song have you heard in the past 30 years that changes key in the fourth bar? They’re all variations of Bridge Over Troubled Water, with descending bass and diatonic stuff. Or it’s the same well-produced three chords, but you wouldn’t recognise them, because of all the electronic manipulation that goes on. Basically it’s no fun for me! [Laughs] I’m sorry if that sounds elitist- that’s what I’m hearing. I compare the voice to a horn- the sound that’s being produced, and where it’s being placed, and the harmonies around it is what speaks to me. If there’s a beautiful lyric, that adds to the deepness of it.

LJN:  You’ve worked with so many singers- Sheila Jordan, Chet Baker, Natalie Cole, Barbra Streisand, Diane Schuur…Do you play differently when you’re working with a singer?

AB: Yeah. My role is different; I’m an accompanist, and I’m aware of what singers need after all these years. I always have to remind myself not to play too much, but my tendency is to want to be an orchestra. When I’m an improviser I’m in a different world. I’m creating something that’s about notes and that life force that produces the notes. The notes are being produced by the feeling of this music called jazz. That’s what Louis Armstrong invented.

LJN:  You won your Grammys for arranging strings for singers.

AB: The first was for Natalie Cole when they recreated a video with Nat King Cole and her. The next was one I did for Charlie Haden and Quartet West. I’ll never forget- we had just finished the take and everybody went into the booth to listen to the playback but Shirley Horn stayed in the studio. I sheepishly walked out into the studio and said, ‘Hi Shirley, can I get you anything? Would you like to come and hear the playback?’ She just looked up and me and said, ‘Oh, everything’s fine, I’m just enjoying being a sideman!’ We had this beautiful take where I imagine light at the bus station, the rainy mist coming down, and the music begins. That’s the thing about orchestration- painting a picture.

LJN:  And you’ve arranged for Paul McCartney and Diana Krall?

AB: I wrote one arrangement for Diana as part of Charlie’s last CD called Sophisticated Ladies. I love Diana- I don’t think there’s any singer I know that can hold a candle to her about where she puts the notes. You’ll hear the history, you’ll hear Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday. I’m not talking about imitation- I’m talking about that feeling you get. Paul McCartney- that was a different take. That was produced by Tommy LiPuma and Diana, and they put down all the tracks, so I didn’t have so much control with that. It’s actually just as a background and not adding much to the overall event, which has already been created. There are other situations where I have more control of where I’m taking the singer. Especially in a trio situation; it’s not locked in. A lot of singers don’t like this, but by my very nature as a jazz pianist, I cannot play the same thing twice. So somebody like Georgia or Sheila [Jordan] even- they go with it, but it’ll be different every night: how I play a chord, how I play the intro, how I react to Georgia. It’s part of the improvising experience; otherwise for me it’s just a gig. We’re not sharing that feeling. And that’s what we hope to communicate to the audience, which I hope these songs will do. It’s beyond something that’s just entertaining- it has these deeper feelings that I hope we can communicate.

LJN: Are there any other songwriters or arrangers you particularly admire? 

AB: I recently discovered a very rare album on the internet- Irene Kral singing with my arranging teacher Herb Pomeroy. He was the arranging teacher at Berklee, since its inception. He died about 10 years ago. Every arrangement that Herb wrote for her is so perfect for a big band. There’s a lesson in every song. Suddenly he went from teacher to master and I didn’t know that at the time. Irene is just like the pure song itself, which is great for an arranger. You can paint your colours more easily because she becomes like a cantus firmus. I guess the colours are important, but it’s more about counterpoint when I’m arranging, to think about having my own kind of subsong that’s going along in tandem with the tune itself. If you took away the tune, you could see there’s some development that’s more subliminal for me that I can build on.

LJN: You wrote for Charlie Haden’s Quartet West, with its film noir connections. Have film composers influenced you? 

AB: Yes, since I was a boy. I remember going to see Spartacus in New Zealand three times because there was a moment that I was waiting for, where Kirk Douglas comes down to Gene Simmonds –my old romantic heart! I couldn’t believe how beautiful the music was. And when I was about 18, I discovered Love is For the Very Young, the theme to the film The Bad and Beautiful, about the same time I was going through all my Dad’s sheet music. When I first started writing for Charlie, I wasn’t trying to imitate anything, cause I was older, and finally I had enough technique. So the music was coming out as the way I feel about things; my arrangements had a certain quality to them. But with the Quartet West- I think one reviewer gave it the moniker ‘film noir’ and then it kind of stuck. What I write isn’t film noir- it’s just me, but I live in a time warp anyway!

LJN: You have a UK tour coming up with Georgia Mancio? 

 AB: Georgia and the guys- I’m so looking forward to that. To actually feel these things coming alive- it’s going to be kind of emotional, and I’m hope there are some people out there that enjoy them. They have a life of their own. Georgia Mancio/Alan Broadbent Songbook.

Alison Bentley is a singer and teaches singing. Her music is on Soundcloud.

AUTUMN 2015 TOUR (Oli Hayhurst: bass, Dave Ohm: drums) 

Tue 22 Sept The Apex, Bury St Edmunds

Thu 24 Sept Bonington Theatre, Nottingham

Sun 27 Sept The Stables, Milton Keynes
(Live Jazz Matters Series, 11.30-1.30pm, no drums) 

Thu 8 Oct Watermill Jazz at Aviva Social Club, Dorking

Fri 9 Oct Pizza Express Jazz Club, London (2 shows)

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