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Jacqui Dankworth: I Can't Help Pouring My Heart Out


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Things of worth often happen quietly, like when a flower grows or when you gain enlightenment--you don't necessarily know it's happening. After losing dad I started to realize what he meant to me.
Jacqui Dankworth is one of Britain's finest singers; a strikingly effective interpreter of lyrics blessed with a superb voice and the talent to delve deep into the emotional heart of a song. Whether it's nature or nurture, it's not too surprising that the daughter of Sir John Dankworth and Dame Cleo Laine should have developed such a strong and distinctive vocal talent. What is, perhaps, more surprising is that, although Jacqui has worked with her family many times over the years, her 2011 album, It Happens Quietly (Specific Jazz), is her first major recorded collaboration with her father. Sadly, the album was not completed until after Sir John's death in February 2010.

Jacqui's recording career started in the early '90s. It encompasses jazz, blues and crossover recordings, including an album with The Passion, a trio with Liane Carroll and Sara Colman—One Good Reason, Qnote Records, 2008—and the unusual Housman Settings (Spotlite Jazz, 1996), a selection of A. E. Housman poems set to music. It Happens Quietly might just be her finest album so far—it's certainly a very personal work, and one that's very close to her heart. She is justifiably pleased with the finished recording and, just as importantly, "I think my dad would be proud of it."

This interview was planned to take place after the album launch at one of the regular Music In The Garden concerts held each year in the grounds of The Rectory at Wavendon: the Dankworth family home since the early '60s. The British weather intervened. Torrential rain forced the postponement of the launch and so the interview took place two days before the event, during a week which Jacqui had spent reorganizing the event, and the band.

She began by talking about the album's genesis. "We started work on it maybe two years before dad died, so the first sessions were done about three and a half years ago, in early 2008. We did it in three or four different stages. The first lot of recording was done in mum and dad's front room: I was singing in the conservatory, the mobile studio was outside with loads of wires leading into the house. Then mum broke her leg, soon after that initial recording."

Dame Cleo's recovery took almost a year, after which she and Sir John caught up with touring commitments. Sir John became seriously ill soon after, but continued to work on the album's arrangements and orchestrations with the help of Ken Gibson, his ex-student. Gibson, along with producer Tony Platt, was key to the album's sound. "Ken has been a friend of the family for 25 or 30 years. When dad was really ill we would all sit around his bed and listen to the arrangements and dad would give Ken notes. Dad had done quite a few of the arrangements himself but as he got too weak to carry on, when it became too difficult to concentrate for more than half an hour or so, we would work a little at a time and Ken came down to help."

The closing stages of the recording were clearly difficult. Jacqui describes the period, with a touch of understatement, as "quite an emotional time." But her collaboration with her father continued, extending to the selection of musicians as well as the selection of songs. With regard to the choice of songs, says Jacqui, "It was pretty much a joint decision. Everything we put on the album dad loved. There were one or two things I came up with that he wasn't too sure about, so we didn't do them. Mum suggested 'I'm Glad There Is You.' I often lean towards more crossover stuff, but that wasn't dad's thing so there aren't any of those sorts of songs on the album. I love all the songs that we chose; I think it's a happy mix."

There are plenty of well-known and instantly recognizable songs on It Happens Quietly, including standards such as "Make Someone Happy" and "At Last." The title song was co-written by Sir John and Buddy Kaye in the early '60s, as Jacqui explains: "It was written for a film called Salt And Pepper (1968), which starred Sammy Davis Jr.. Mum used to sing the song on stage, but she hadn't touched it since the late '60s so dad said to me 'look, I think this song will really suit you' so we got it down from the shelf, as it were. I think it's a classic song."

Just before this interview Jacqui found another, rather fitting, connection to the song's title. "I Google'd "It Happens Quietly" the other night and found a reference to this Indian guru who talks about how things of worth often happen quietly, like when a flower grows or when you gain enlightenment—you don't necessarily know it's happening. And I thought that this was quite poignant: after losing dad I started to realize what he meant to me."

The other John Dankworth song is "The Man," with lyrics by Jacqui. In contrast to the title song this is a more upbeat, humorous, number. It's also the only track that features Sir John's alto saxophone playing. "Dad wrote the tune as a piece for his small band, his quintet, about five or six years ago. Then we did a music library project—songs for films and television—for a company called Audio Network. I wrote lyrics for about ten of dad's tunes. 'The Man' was one of them. We recorded it for this album before dad passed away, and after he died I rang Audio Network and asked for the recording of dad's solo. It was miraculous—it was exactly the same tempo as the album version. We've done the song in so many tempos, no click tracks or anything, but his solo just fitted exactly with the chosen version: no trickery, it just slotted in." She adds, with obvious pride, "So he's on the album. Even after his death he still manages to get on to the recording."

Although that alto solo is Sir John's only performance, his personality is stamped across the album through his arrangements, and also through his vocal presence on "A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square" and "The Man." On both tunes Sir John can be heard organizing the recording, counting in the musicians. "We did that at the beginning and the end of the album: we thought it made a nice sort of 'bookend' for the recording. It's important for people to know that he was involved in it, that he was very much part of the whole process."

The lineup of musicians on It Happens Quietly is outstanding: almost a who's who of contemporary straight-ahead British jazz. Some, such as drummer Steve Brown, have worked with both Jacqui and Sir John over many years. The selection of these musicians was another collaboration: "The rhythm players are people I've worked with a lot. Malcolm Edmonstone is my regular pianist and musical director, I've worked with him for ten years or more. Chris Allard, the guitarist, is also in my band." Jacqui's brother Alec Dankworth plays bass on most of the tunes, with Steve Watts taking on the role for three numbers. "Alec is on the numbers from the first session, the session which we did in mum and dad's house. He couldn't make the second session, which was in London, so Steve came on for that one." There's a large wind section, featuring yet more top players. "Yeah, that's true. Henry Lowther played trumpet in dad's band for many years, Jimmy Hastings has been a very loyal friend and band mate to dad as well. Karen Sharp and Tim Garland are both sax players who my dad admired. Dad nurtured Tim from an early age—not that he needed much nurturing."

On tour there will be different combinations of players, varying by venue and event and ranging from trios to larger ensembles with strings. "We've got different versions of the arrangements, but it's nice to have Ben Davis on cello because you can then hint at the full string arrangements. We are aiming to do some gigs with the orchestra next year: we'll also be doing a concert at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester later this year, with a string section formed by the students."

The string arrangements are one of the most striking elements of the album. There's a lush romanticism to some of them that, while they are very definitely contemporary, gives them a feel that harks back to the '30s and '40s. Jacqui pauses for a few seconds to consider this before replying. "I'm not sure if dad would like that interpretation or not. He was composing right up until he died and it certainly wasn't a deliberate thing, to try to recreate that period's sound. But I'm glad it's got that classic feel."

Jacqui and Alec are the children of one of Britain's best know and best loved musical partnerships, household names since the '60s. How did that impact on her childhood? "Looking back, I suppose it was extraordinary but at the time it never really felt like that. We were fairly scruffy kids, climbing trees and running around. I went to the local primary school, then boarding school when I was eight years old ... I think it's hard to think back that far. At the time it just felt normal. It certainly didn't feel like a celebrity life: my parents always had their feet on the ground."

Jacqui's parents were both talented individuals, and a central part of the British music scene, so following in their footsteps in some way seemed inevitable. "I don't think there was ever a time when I thought I would do something else. There was never anything else I was any good at, to be honest," she says, laughing. Jacqui's first move was not into singing, however, but acting. Eventually, her singing career took precedence and acting was put to one side, but she is once again looking towards acting. "I've just got an agent again, in the last few months. It was quite hard, coming back after I hadn't done anything for a while, but we'll see how it goes."

There are plenty of examples in jazz of singers who also act—indeed, Dame Cleo had a successful acting career. Many performers move between the two disciplines, but how do they inform and affect each other? "The two are definitely integrated. I always approach a song from the point of view of the lyric. I do a lot of groundwork at home, I don't necessarily think about it on stage. I always try to make the lyric personal; to relate it to my life or how I feel about the subject of the song. I don't know any other way of doing it, but I suppose that is quite an active approach."

Talking of the link between acting and singing, Jacqui is reminded of one of the great singers, and his acting skills, as she relates: "I remember seeing Frank Sinatra at the Royal Albert Hall—my mum was supporting him—and it really struck me what a great actor he was, especially in front of an audience. He made everybody believe that he was singing to them: it was very personal. Absolutely brilliant. Yet it's amazing how many singers don't seem to think about that approach. They just sound like they're singing something out of the telephone directory and I just think 'How can you do that?.' It must be partly my acting training." Perhaps it's also something inherent in Jacqui that's part of both her acting and singing talents? "Well maybe. I can't help pouring my heart out."

Selected Discography

Jacqui Dankworth, It Happens Quietly (Specific Jazz, 2011)

Jacqui Dankworth, Back To You (Cadiz Music, 2009)

The Passion, One Good Reason (Qnote Records, 2008)

Jacqui Dankworth, Detour Ahead (Candid Records, 2004)

Jacqui Dankworth, As The Sun Shines Down On Me (Candid Records, 2003)

Jacqui Dankworth and James Pearson, For All We Know (Black Box, 2000)

Jacqui Dankworth and New Perspectives, Housman Settings (Spotlite Jazz, 1996)

Photo Credits
Page 1: Courtesy of Jacqui Dankworth

All Other Photos: Bruce Lindsay

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