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

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

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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."

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