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Paul Jost: The First Thing is Heart

Chris M. Slawecki By

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Even for a musician who has been playing and singing since age six, Paul Jost has just come through one exceptional year.

First, he released his debut with The Jost Project, Can't Find My Way Home (2013, Dot.Time Records), featuring the leader on vocals, harmonica and guitar, with drummer Charlie Patierno, double bassist Kevin MacConnell and Tony Miceli on vibes. On Can't Find My Way Home, Jost remakes and remodels several classics from 1960s/'70s pop and rock FM radio playlists into genuinely inventive jazz—and not just some obscure bootleg or B-side tracks, but such iconic tunes as "Bridge Over Troubled Water" Simon & Garfunkel) and "Kashmir" (Led Zeppelin), all jumping off from Miceli's funk-thumping arrangement of "Walk This Way" (Aerosmith). "So if jazz is something you weren't familiar with before—this is a rock fan's primer to jazz," Jost wrote in this set's notes. "If you're a jazz fan, we hope you'll appreciate the diverse repertoire of songs performed in the modern jazz idiom."

Jost's subsequent Breaking Through (2014, Dot.Time Records) features the same type of adventurous jazz, often from reconstructed pop standards, with Jost adding keyboards and body percussion to his vocals and guitar. "I'm hoping to connect with you while presenting my music as a kind of balance between accessibility and risk... if that makes sense," wrote Jost in its notes. Along with MacConnell and Miceli, Breaking Through also features two of Philadelphia's finest and most longstanding musicians, pianist Jim Ridl and drummer Dan Monaghan. Gloria Krolak wrote in her review of Breaking Through that, "There is not a word that does not sound real or felt, even in standards which we're danger of not really hearing."

Breaking Through opens with Jost "Singing in the Rain" to honor his dear and departed friend, pianist and arranger George Mesterhazy. He later dances through "I Got Rhythm" and a duet on "Sweet Loraine" with pianist Strauss which strongly suggests Tony Bennett knocking off a merely perfect take with pianist Ralph Sharon. Other tunes include a Saturday night joyride through "I Don't Need No Doctor" written by Ashford & Simpson for Ray Charles and fueled by its percussion and a funk guitar hook, and vocal takes on McCoy Tyner's "Blues on Corner" and Jim Hall's "Waltz New." Strauss and Jost also team for a reverential prayer on Bill Evans' "Waltz For Debby" whereby the pianist more than honors Evans' playing through his own while Jost extracts and amplifies every bit of longing from Gene Lees' poignant, beautiful lyric.

Breaking Through also features Jost's original "Book Faded Brown," which has been covered by Carl Perkins, The Band and Rick Danko, who simply says, "'Book Faded Brown' is one of the best songs I've ever heard or done." (Jost is also a four-category blue-ribbon Billboard Song Content winner.) It's hard to explain but this song sounds the way that a soft chilly autumn night feels, and his phrasing and delivery are so simple, direct, unadorned, and pure—so emotionally and intellectually honest—that Jost becomes transparent and dissolves, leaving you alone in the story told by his song. It is simply brilliant.

"This is the best male voice I have ever heard in my life," Dot.Time Records Founder Johanan (Jo) Bickhardt confided in between Jost's sets at the Breaking Through CD release party at Philadelphia's jazz landmark Chris' Jazz Café. "What he does is vocally illegal."

In the course of his career, Jost has also performed and/or recorded with Ron Carter, Billy Eckstine, Joe Farrell, Dr. John, Teo Macero, Mark Murphy, Bucky Pizzarelli and dozens more, and has composed and performed music for major music libraries and commercial jingles. He also served as drummer in an off-Broadway production of Andy Warhol's Man on the Moon featuring John Phillips (The Mamas & the Papas) and serves as guest lecturer and instructor for West Chester (PA) University and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He will appear at the 55 Bar in New York City on February 20, 2015.

"Music spoke to my heart the instant I was exposed to it, and each experience has added to a continuing dialogue that becomes more beautiful and more meaningful in my life," Jost explains. This dialogue continues in the following interview.

All About Jazz: Was there much music in your house growing up?

Paul Jost: I wasn't really raised with much music around me. There was a piano at my grandmother's house where I'd visit my father on weekends. I played it from the time I was about four years old, same as any kid gravitates toward an instrument. But it wasn't like anyone played in my family. I was an only child up until my mom remarried when I was twelve.

AAJ: What are your earliest memories of music?

PJ: I remember at five years old I really wanted to play the drums. I'm not sure exactly why. Gene Krupa was an early influence and he popularized the instrument. God bless my mom for buying me a kit because the last thing a parent wants to hear is a kid banging on drums. But she did and I just took to them, practiced all the time and started taking lessons at five or six.

I listened to music from a very early age, mainly the same popular music everyone listened to on the radio at the time. My mom had Frank Sinatra, Nat "King" Cole, Doris Day, Sammy Davis Jr., Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis records at home. My step dad really loved Nat King Cole and could actually sound just like him. I was a TV kid too, so all those themes entered my brain. Earl Hagen wrote such great stuff. Some of the underscoring on The Andy Griffith Show was so beautiful. It was from TV that I started to sense how music affects the scenes and my emotions.

AAJ: Did you have your own favorite cover versions (songs subsequently done by other than the original artists) growing up?

PJ: I can't think of anything that jumps out to me. For the most part, the majority of what I heard growing up was different vocalists singing a lot of the same literature. I didn't really hear a whole lot of departure or the deconstruction of stuff. But when I would hear tunes like "Big Bad John" (Jimmy Dean), "Sixteen Tons" (Tennessee Ernie Ford), "Ode to Billy Joe" (Bobbie Gentry) and my all-time favorite "One For My Baby" (Frank Sinatra), they just opened up a whole other side to me of storytelling and imagery, and I really loved that. I used to mime "One for My Baby" in the mirror. In fact when my brother Rusty and I sold my parents' house, the last thing I did before I left was mime that tune one last time into the mirror still on the other side of my bedroom door.

I realized then that I don't always want things to be defined for me. It's one of the things that I didn't like about song videos and what I sometimes don't like about a movie. When you read a book or hear a record, you can create your own imagery and bring your own life into it. A lot of songwriters don't like to say what their work is about—they'll put it out there and ask, "What did YOU think?" The feedback can be really eye opening.

AAJ: We hear on your CDs and at concerts the successful rearrangements/cover versions that you've done. But what's the craziest take you've tried on a cover song that didn't work?

PJ: Well, something "working" is really a matter of opinion.

Honestly, I don't start in on a new song or arrangement unless I have an idea that's leading me somewhere. Once I get onto something, there's an excitement that compels me to chase it down. I'm not saying that everything I pursue becomes a diamond, but the effort of it, of trying to do it, is always rewarding. Bobby Scott, a dear friend and mentor, told me to always and only polish a diamond.

I associate it with sculpting. Some sculptors say that when the inspiration strikes, it's like looking at a pile of clay and you immediately see what you want to do. When I get onto something, from the minute it hits, I can almost see the end before I start. You just can't get there fast enough, you know? When I'm dealing with my own interpretations, I'm looking for my own voice and asking is this something that feels true to me? If it does, then I'm satisfied because I'm going to be much more critical than anyone else.

I have this deconstructed arrangement of "I Didn't Know What Time It Was." I've heard people say, "That's my favorite song on Dialogues Part 2," the album I did with the The Antfarm Quartet (2007, Dreambox Media); some others say, "It's too disturbing." I love that. That's what I want to do: Invoke a reaction with something different that feels true to me.

AAJ: You're right in that you need to first write for you.

PJ: Sure. If you're hired to write a jingle or specific style of tune for a particular purpose you still want it to ring true, always, but you have to deliver it within certain guidelines. When you're writing for yourself, the edges of the canvas aren't defined until you set them. I just thought of that artist and lovely man, Bob Ross, who would always say, "Because in your world, it can be anything you want it to be."

AAJ: Your duet with pianist Frank Strauss on "Sweet Lorraine" sure sounds like a Tony Bennett duet with pianist Ralph Sharon. You may sing from different "American Songbooks," but you and Bennett both seem, from time to time, to swing that blues jazz barrelhouse thing. Where do you think your common points are?

PJ: First of all, to be mentioned in the same breath as Tony Bennett is an incredible honor and beyond my comprehension. "Sweet Lorraine" is a lovely tune and Frank sounds so wonderful, but honestly I didn't think about Tony with Ralph Sharon on that at all. Our take on "Waltz for Debby" is a definite nod to Tony and Bill Evans. I love their version and really proud of what Frank and I did together. "Waltz For Debby" is a particular favorite because I used to sing that song for my daughter when she was just three years old. I'd come home late at night from a gig and I'd see her little shoes at the bottom of the stairs and would project about the time she would leave the nest. That time has come and gone, and now I sing it to her daughter, my beautiful granddaughter, Olivia Grace.

"Waltz For Debby" is one of the best things I've ever sung or probably ever will sing and much of the reason is because of the beautiful way Frank framed the picture. We were on the same page and reading the same story without saying a word to each other.

I do hear people mention they hear Tony Bennett in my voice but I think it may have more to do with the intensity or interpretation of the lyric. I absolutely love Tony Bennett but I've never studied him closely or tried to pattern myself after him.

One of the singers I actually have studied may not even be considered a "singer" by many people, Randy Newman. He's one of my favorite writers and stylists.

How we sound has a lot to do with the material we choose and the environment we're in. I've done a lot of jingles, and I've heard people say that I sound like Sting, Harry Connick Jr., Louis Prima, Louis Armstrong, Randy Newman, Mark Murphy, Tom Waits, Mel Torme, Rod Stewart, Barry Manilow and a lot of other people I don't even know. If you do a signature Sinatra tune, you're already kind of in that thing, you know? You're not doing impressions but you're projecting from a very familiar landscape. The goal is to find your own voice and as I'm feeling more and more comfortable in my own skin, I'd like to think I have my own identity so people hear me, no matter what I'm doing. I sing Ashford & Simpson's "I Don't Need No Doctor" on the new CD and I doubt someone hearing me sing that would confuse me with anyone I've mentioned. People may hear different elements of others in me because we're all connected, but I hope that my sound and my heart reaches them through my prism.

Dot Time encouraged me to make my CD eclectic and to show some of the elements that make me what I am, and I'm proud of the diversity of the record, but I hope that from song to song you can still hear me in there.
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