Georgia Mancio: ReVoice!

Bruce Lindsay By

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When the road offers two possible paths, the decision to turn left or right can have major consequences. If Georgia Mancio had taken the left-hand path, then she might now be carving out a career in movie production. She took the other route, thanks to a part-time job and a box set of albums, to become one of the UK's most innovative singers and lyricists. The cinema's loss was the music world's gain.

Fast-forward to 2010 and another pathway opens up: a route that leads to the creation of an exciting new music festival in the heart of London's jazz scene. Mancio becomes, almost inadvertently, the director of a festival devoted to the singer's art—ReVoice! is born. Three years later and Mancio is combining her careers as a singer and a festival organizer with admirable skill and enthusiasm.

Becoming A Singer

Mancio has worked extensively as a performer, with Bobby McFerrin and Darius Brubeck among others. Surprisingly, her discography remains small, with just three albums on the list—Peaceful Place (2003), Trapeze (2007) and Silhouette (2010), all released on her own Roomspin Records label. Her debut mixed standards with some Brazilian and Italian tunes. Trapeze was even more eclectic, with contemporary pop added to the mix, and the majority of the songs on Silhouette were originals, often co-written by Mancio and her bandmates. Each album has drawn praise from the critics and demonstrated Mancio's development as an artist and, later, as a songwriter.

Although Mancio comes from a family with a musical tradition, and she developed her own love of music at an early age, her own career as a professional singer started relatively late in her life. "My paternal grandparents were both professional classical musicians, but they lived in Italy, and by the time I knew them they'd stopped performing. My great-grandmother was from Uruguay. She was a pianist, too, but my dad didn't follow that path; the line got broken. I played classical flute when I was young, but I didn't take it too far. I didn't set out to be a singer: I didn't have a clue how to go about it, didn't know about the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, didn't know any musicians. I spent more time acting and ended up studying filmmaking."

It was the need to support herself financially during her film studies that led Mancio towards the center of the London jazz scene. "I worked part-time as a waitress at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club to support myself during my film studies. I took the job because I wanted something that wasn't going to be stressful or interfere with studying and because I loved jazz. That opened up a whole world to me; it demystified music not just because I saw so many great names but also because I got to know local musicians. I learned that while music is a passion, it's also a job.

"I was lucky. A couple of musicians were really kind and gave me advice about gigs, helped me put a demo together. Ironically, at the time, it was much harder to get started in the film industry than it was in music. I could go out and get my own gigs, find work as a singer. After a while, it became obvious that to succeed in either field you have to dedicate yourself totally, so I decided to concentrate on music—although I carried on working at Ronnie's, for about five years altogether.

"I left Ronnie's at the end of 1999 and turned professional. I took lessons, went on courses, but mostly I learnt on stage, in public. In the 12 years since then, I've carried on learning as I go. I do a bit of one-to- one teaching, but I earn my living as a performing singer, through gigs. As I've worked with more people, been exposed to more influences, I've moved on. That collaboration with others is still my main education. It brings out so much more than you can achieve on your own."

Early Influences

Mancio's love of jazz began when her father decided to expand his own musical horizons, introducing Frank Sinatra into the family home. " Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely (Capitol, 1958) was an early influence. My dad used to love classical music, so when I was young that's pretty much all we listened to at home. Then he decided to try a different direction and bought a jazz box set and the Sinatra album. I was about 8 or 10 years old, and Sinatra really struck a chord with me. The box set had some really great singers on it, too: Carmen McRae, Betty Carter, Jon Hendricks and Irene Krall. I came back to all of them as an adult."

Once Mancio was immersed in the British scene, she soon became attracted to singers from closer to home. "Norma Winstone was a big influence, especially her albums with John Taylor, the pianist. Ian Shaw, Liane Carroll, Christine Tobin and Claire Martin also influenced me: I'd see them regularly, see them trying new material, developing ideas. Working with them now is a lovely experience: the circle is complete."

Anita O'Day, the great American vocalist, is another performer who had a large impact on Mancio (pictured above with bassist Arnie Somogyi), to such an extent that she has developed her own tribute to O'Day, which she now performs. "It's taken me all this time to be brave enough to do it. It's a tribute, but I also wanted to put my own stamp on it. It was fascinating to go into depth about one artist, to revisit one person's body of work.

"I still think of myself as a standards singer. It was my introduction to jazz. I loved the '40s musicals and the songs of that era before I knew who the songwriters and singers were. Nowadays, there seem to be two camps: the standards singers and the singer-composers. Some people think standards are the way to go; others think there's a stigma attached to it, and you have to be writing. I think all of that is nonsense: you should only do what you feel you can do truthfully. It doesn't matter if that's songs from the '20s or something you wrote on the bus that morning, if you do it with conviction."

Composition and Collaboration

Mancio also writes. More accurately, she's a lyricist, adding words to existing tunes or working with other musicians on original material. "I collaborate for a couple of reasons. One, I don't feel qualified, as it were, to create an entire song from beginning to end. It's still quite new to me, and if I'm honest it's still not something I spend a lot of time on. I haven't really got a pattern that I work to. Sometimes it takes me a year to finish something. Perhaps I'll have a line missing, and I'll just put the song away and forget about it. Sometimes I've written things in 10 minutes, which is quite alarming!

"I tend to wait until I hear music I'm inspired by and want to add lyrics to. I'm a lyricist, really. Again, Norma Winstone's been a real influence on me. She's a lyricist who's put words to such a wide range of music; she's really inspiring. Tim Lapthorn, a pianist I've worked with a lot, was my first collaborator. He'd written a piece of music I thought was really lovely, and he said, 'Why don't you put some words to it?' That shone a light for me, made me think I should try it."

Writing is still a small part of her work, however. "I haven't really written too many lyrics. Most of the ones I've recorded are on Silhouette. There are some I've co-written with Tim, some with Kate Williams, who's also a pianist; the lyric I added to Pat Metheny's "Question And Answer" [which Mancio retitled "Question The Answer"]. I'm working on a Joe Zawinul tune; I've done some Horace Silver, too. I'm also doing some translations of Spanish songs, trying to keep the meaning of the original words but creating a nice English lyric. It's really hard! I'd love to try and be a lyricist for hire. I think that's a huge challenge. You have to put your ego aside and really serve the song."

Take It With Me

Contemporary songwriters are being adopted into the jazz repertoire, creating what might be thought of as a new body of standards. Tom Waits is pre-eminent in this group. His "Take It With Me," co-written with Kathleen Brennan, has been performed or recorded by artists including Shaw, Carroll, Solveig Slettahjell and Mancio herself (on Silhouette). But how does a song become adopted by a singer? Mancio's own stripped-back, atmospheric, version of the song comes not from discovering the Waits original but from hearing an instrumental version.

"That song came to me through a bassist, Nick Kaçal, rather than through another singer. Nick recorded the song with a band called Guerillasound. I loved that version, and he suggested that I should learn it. I learnt it to do guest spots on gigs with the band. After I'd recorded it, I found out that Liane Carroll had done it on her album. We always do it as a bass-and-voice number live, very stripped down; on the album there's a cello as well. It's a simple melody, but the lyrics are fantastic, and the song is incredibly moving. With a ballad, the acid test is: have I moved myself? It's important that the song affects me emotionally, otherwise it just feels like I'm going through the motions.

"I've recently developed a newfound love for singing the Beatles' songs. Some of their lyrics are so quirky and original—really well written and crafted. A lot of jazz musicians still seem quite snobby about their songs, but they are great. It doesn't matter if they only have a few chords. The lyrics can be really, really special. That might not be something an instrumentalist thinks about; singers probably look at songs differently."

It may well be that singers consider the impact of the words more than the complexity of chord changes. "Yes. Sometimes it's great to do things in different ways, but sometimes a song has to be done in a certain way to best serve the lyric. If you don't have the words, a tune can become a great melody to blow over. It almost doesn't matter if a heartbreaking ballad ends up as an up-tempo swinger if the lyrics are taken away. For me as a singer, some songs are best served as they are, as they were intended to be originally."

The ReVoice! Festival

A successful career as a jazz singer takes plenty of time and energy to create and maintain. Organizing a festival is hardly the easiest job in the world. What drove Mancio to combine the two activities? And why? "I'm still asking myself that," Mancio says, laughing at the thought. Whatever the reasons might be, there's no doubt that the festival has grown year on year, with the 2012 ReVoice! program building on the size and scope of previous years.
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