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Jon Cowherd: Mercy, Mercy Me

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AAJ: You've played with a quite diverse range of singers, like country singer Rosanne Cash, jazz singer Cassandra Wilson and even rocker Iggy Pop; were you tempted at all to have a singer on Mercy?

JC: Not this record. I'd love to make another record with a singer or maybe a line-up of singers. I've been really fortunate to work with some great singers and I would love to do a record of originals—maybe get together with four or five singers and co-write songs. I'm not a real lyricist but I love songwriting so I need someone to collaborate with to write the words.

AAJ: What singers could you envisage singing to your music?

JC: I have a few in mind but I'd have to speak to them.

AAJ: You were musical director, along with Brian Blade for the Joni Mitchell tribute concert—"Joni: A Portrait in Song"—in Massey Hall,Toronto, which seemed like an amazing event; can you tell us about that project and that evening in particular?

JC: It was an amazing week. We had done a tribute to her, or rather a tribute to a period of hers where she used a lot of jazz musicians on her records. We had done this in L.A. but she wasn't able to make that as her father was turning 100 the same week. The excitement was that she was going to turn up to the one in Toronto so we expanded it to included music from her earlier records.

She was involved in the rehearsals a little bit. She hung out a bit and she was going to do one poem that she had written. She was going to recite it with some jazz improv. We'd just do some free improv behind her. Well, one of the singers got laryngitis and had to drop out the day before the show. We said, Joni, we have four arrangements of yours that we have no singer for; do you want to try it? She said, yeah, let's try it.

She ended up singing three extra songs each night. That was a dream come true for me. I'd met her before and she'd sung on a Fellowship record [Perceptual (Blue Note Records, 2000)] and hung out but I'd never played her music with her so that was an amazing time. The audience at the Luminato Festival was just shocked and so excited when she started singing. They didn't know that was going to happen so it was just a great night. There was electricity in the room; it was just amazing.


AA: There's a short clip on Youtube, which somebody recorded on a camera for a couple of minutes of "Furry Sings the Blues" before being clobbered by the security but it shows that Mitchell at 70 still has it. She sounds great.

JC: Yeah, she does. She was concentrating on painting for a long time and not singing and I think she was putting her toe in the water a little bit those nights. She really enjoyed it and I'm hoping we're going to do it some more.

AAJ: Working so closely with Joni's music that week, did you learn anything new about her music?

JC: I did. Transcribing some of the tunes and writing out the arrangements I got a little more insight into the marriage of her music and lyrics and how thoughtful it is. The tones kind of paint with the words.

AAJ: You've worked with Cassandra Wilson for a couple of years and it's always struck me that there's a little bit of Joni Mitchell in her singing; do you sense that?

JC: Yeah, I do. She has that same ability to really deliver a lyric with emotion. You really get a sense of the song. With Joni, I think she's almost like a jazz singer. Joni has a freedom in her singing that's like jazz.

AAJ: Coming back to your own CD, Mercy, the three-part "Mercy Suite" is particularly striking, yet there's a great continuity to the music as a whole on the CD, with the exception of "Seconds"; did you think about doing a longer suite?

JC: No, not really. I wasn't even planning to write that suite but I had a piece of music called "Mercy Wind' and I thought it didn't feel complete. It felt like part of something. I started writing some other things and realized how connected they were to "Mercy Wind. That gave me the idea to write a suite.

I like a record to have continuity like that. People have said of Perceptual that the whole record is suite-like. I wanted the music to sound like it's a story.

AAJ: The melodies on Mercy Wind are very strong and it's always surprising to think that nobody has ever thought of that melody before; is the creative process a mystery to you or is it 90% hard graft and 10% inspiration?

JC: it's more of a mystery in a way. Some of those things were kind of improvised. The melody at the end of "Mercy Wind" was totally improvised and I wrote the tune around that. I tend to write tunes from the back to the front. I often write things that sound like the end of something or the last section and then I try to write a melody that's related and that would come before.

I know that sounds really odd but that's what happened on the third movement of the suite. It is a mystery in that ideas tend to drop out of the sky sometimes. Then I have to graft to make it make sense. Maybe it's 50-50.


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