Bob Dorough & Friends, Pizza Express Jazz Club 19/20/21 Feb 2015, interview by Tamsin Collison

On 19th, 20th and 21st February Sarah performs with jazz legend the singer and pianist Bob Dorough, together with singer Trudy Kerr, bassist Geoff Gascoyne and drummer Sebastiaan de Krom, at Pizza Express Jazz Club, Soho and Maidstone.  She talked with singer and writer Tamsin Collison about the forthcoming gigs.

1) For those people who don’t know him, who is Bob Dorough?

SM:  Bob is an internationally-renowned American jazz pianist/arranger/ composer/singer with a lifetime of jazz musicianship and experience to share.   Definitely qualifies as Jazz Royalty!  And he’s over here to play 3 gigs – 2 at London’s Pizza Express Club in Dean St on 19th and 20th Feb, and 1 at Pizza Express Maidstone on 21st Feb.  It’s a rare opportunity to catch a true legend, live on stage.

2)  Where would you place BD in the Jazz Pantheon?

SM:  I would place him alongside fellow wordsmiths Dave Frishberg and Fran Landesman.  But really he’s out there on his own stylistically as a performer – a  one-off.  He’s very much a singer’s singer.  He’s a clever composer, but it‘s the dexterity, warmth and wit of his lyrics and the musical risks he takes as a performer that singers really respond to.  He’s a master of Vocalise, and lots of singers study songs of his such as ‘Up Jumped a Bird’ and ‘I’ve Got Just About Everything’ when learning that repertoire.  Like Blossom Dearie, his unique vocal quality reflects his quirky character.

3)  What has BD’s influence been on the jazz world?

SM:  Many of his numbers are considered part of the repertoire by the jazz world, e.g. ‘Devil May Care’, ‘I’ve Got Just About Everything’,  ‘Small Day Tomorrow’, and ‘Nothing Like You, but he’s not a household name outside the USA in the way that the biggest stars of the Great American Songbook are.  But he’s a key part of American culture from the 1970s and 80s, due to ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ – a series of educational videos he wrote which included the famous song ‘Three is the Magic Number’ and which were massively popular for a whole generation of Americans.  Like Tom Lehrer, he has used his songwriting skills in the cause of education.

4)  What’s your first memory of encountering BD’s work?

SM: I first discovered Bob’s work in the title song of Claire Martin’s album ‘Devil May Care’.  I remember thinking that it sounded like a hard-bop instrumental and not like a Great American Songbook song.  I liked the way it had a modern-sounding lyric that sat very comfortably at a fast tempo. Lyrically it’s a great introdction to Bob’s writing style, full of interesting intervals and extended lyrical lines.  Like Dave Fischberg, Bob writes genuine jazz songs, as opposed to popular songs which can lend themselves to jazz interpretations.

5) What’s your favourite BD number and why?

SM:  At the moment it’s ‘Love Came On Stealthy Fingers’ which I’ve been learning for these shows.  It’s a beautiful song, both lyric and melody.  It’s such an evocative title.  He wrote a new verse for it for his DUETS album which is wonderfully dark.  There’s a bittersweet quality to the lyric too.   Like all Bob’s work, it’s very pleasurable to sing.  Wonderful harmonic twists and turns and a satisfying story.

6) Has BD had any direct influence on you as an artist?

SM:  I’ve recorded ‘Devil May Care’ on one of my own albums.  I find him inspirational – a constant reminder that singers must have the courage to take risks in their choice of material.  I love his musical playfulness and invention.  He’s 91 and he’s still gigging all round the world – he’s just come back from Istanbul, and now he’s got these three gigs in the UK.  He’s living proof that you’re never too old to have a good time, and that music keeps you young.  His gigs are life-enhancing – he brings joy into the room.  And he reminds me that audiences want to be made to feel things.  His message: Live life to the full!

7)  What’s your personal connection with BD – is this the first time you have worked with him?­­­­­­

SM:  I first met BD about 13 years ago at Fran and Jay Landesman’s Duncan Terrace house. They met Bob when Tommy Wolf brought him to St Louis in about 1959 to play the lead in ‘A Walk On The Wild Side’ – Fran and Tommy’s smash-flop musical adaptation of Nelson Algren’s book.  Bob and I worked together on a gig at the Southbank Centre in 2010 which celebrated Fran’s life and work.  He had collaborated with her on songs such as ‘Small Day Tomorrow’, ‘Nothing Like You’, ‘The Winds of Heaven’, ‘Mount Tipsy’, ‘A Little Touch of Harry In The Night’ – and there are more.  ‘Nothing Like You’ is the only song to be included on a Miles Davis album (‘Sorcerer’).  And I’ve met him subsequently in New York and London since then.  So we know each other, but we haven’t duetted together in public, though we’ve sung together in private.  When I was invited to join him on these UK gigs, I jumped at the chance.

8)  Who has chosen the playlist for these gigs?

SM:  Bob invited Trudy (Kerr) and me to choose any numbers from his repertoire that we fancied doing, although he did suggest we included a couple of numbers from his celebrated ‘Duets’ album to sing together.  He has added his own selections, which include his arrangement of the Wallace/Landesman song Scars, to the list and we’ll be doing a few standards too.

9)  Who else is in the band?

SM:  Trudy Kerr (vocals), Sebastiaan de Krom (drums) and Geoff Gascoyne (bass).  Trudy, Geoff and Seb have already recorded an album with Bob, so they know him well.  Seb is a singer’s drummer – a very sensitive player – and Geoff is a brilliant bassist who can play anything in any style.  So it’s going to be a swinging band.

10)  What are you most looking forward to at the gigs?

SM:  I’m really looking forward to singing with Bob and Trudy.  It’s a very different dynamic to performing a solo gig.  I’ll enjoy singing Bob’s crunchy harmonies and having fun with a great group of musicians.  It’ll be a bit seat of the pants in places – we’ll be singing some brand new arrangements that Bob is still writing at this moment – but that’s often where the magic happens!

11)  At 91 years old, Bob Dorough is a living piece of jazz history.  How does it feel to be sharing the bill with such a legend?

SM:  There’s a definite adrenaline buzz.  We’re all keen to do the best possible job for Bob on the night.  And it’s always a bit of an extra challenge performing a writer’s work right in front of them.   Plus, we’re anticipating that a lot of jazzers will be coming to these gigs – and that kind of audience really keeps you on your toes.  So, it’s slightly scary but very exciting – just the right combination to spark a really Top Night.

12)  Pick three words to sum up BD.

SM:  Very.  Cool.  Cat.