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ReVoice! 2014: collaboration is a key to success

Bruce Lindsay By

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The ReVoice! Festival—a celebration of the human voice—is five years old in 2014. Happy Birthday congratulations are in order for the London based festival—this milestone anniversary is an indication of its success and of the wealth of vocalists in the jazz world and beyond. From small beginnings (just five concerts) in 2010 the festival has grown year on year. The 2014 festival program, running from 9-20 October, includes a total of 26 performances across 12 nights in four different venues. Its headliners include Rebecca Parris, Carmen Lundy, Ian Shaw and Claire Martin. It also reaches out beyond London for the first time.

The ReVoice! Festival's success is due to many factors: intelligent programming, audience-friendly venues and talented and entertaining performers are all crucial. So, too, is the dynamism of the festival's founder and director, Georgia Mancio—herself one of the UK scene's top singers. One theme comes across particularly strongly, encompassing performance, organisation and programming—collaboration. It's a theme that Mancio was only too happy to discuss, as were two of the 2014 festival's stars—British pianist and singer Joe Stilgoe and American vocalist and percussionist Vinx.

As usual, the Pizza Express jazz club in Soho's Dean Street is the ReVoice! Festival's central venue—according to Mancio ..."the festival wouldn't happen without the Pizza Express and Ross Dines, he's got years of experience as a promoter." Mancio and Dines have worked together to develop the festival since its inception. Unlike many larger festivals, ReVoice! receives no public funding.

The festival closes with a night at another iconic London venue, the 606 Club: it also moves out of London, with shows at the Watermill Jazz Club in Dorking and the Hunter Club in Bury St Edmunds. "There were quite a few possible venues," says Mancio, "but logistics intervene and it wasn't possible to program them all. The Watermill jumped on board immediately, very straightforward. The Bury St Edmunds gig came about very organically. Chris Ingham, the pianist, invited me to do my Antonio Carlos Jobim show at the Hunter Club a little while ago. The audience was phenomenal—I just wanted to put them in my pocket and take them to my other gigs. Chris suggested I came back to do part two of the show. I suggested coming to the club as part of ReVoice! instead, with Chris as my collaborator: everything was planned in a couple of hours, it was a dream! The out of London thing is important, not just because the scene is national but also in terms of building the ReVoice! brand. I'm dipping my toe in the water, we'll see how it develops."

From the beginning, a central element of the ReVoice! Festival has been Mancio's own musical collaborations: a bewildering array of duo performances with UK musicians which she has delivered in support of headline acts from around the world. In the 2014 festival Mancio will give another series of performances, with eight different collaborators including pianists Robin Aspland, Dave Newton and Andrew McCormack, guitarist Colin Oxley and bassist Michael Janisch.

In 2014 Mancio has chosen to work with a mix of old and new collaborators. "The hardest thing is deciding who not to work with. There's so much choice. For practical reasons I tend to collaborate with London-based musicians because we need to get together, rehearse. Travelling long distances to do that isn't possible for me. It's great to work with musicians I know I have a rapport with. I also push myself to work with new partnerships. When you play with someone for the first time it's such a great experience, so freeing. You have to listen very quickly, respond very quickly. I think duo collaborations are very pure, the conversation is direct." She keeps her sets short, around 30 minutes, conscious of the issues that can arise when opening for headliners. "You're playing to an audience that's come to see the star. You've got very little time to showcase yourself, to get across and win over an audience that's waiting to see someone else. For me, it's the main challenge of ReVoice!."

With such an array of partnerships, in just a couple of weeks, Mancio isn't planning on making every set list unique. "The first year I didn't repeat anything, but that was just five nights. Mostly the set lists are pretty different. Some songs lend themselves to some collaborations better than others. The show in Bury St Edmunds, with Gabrielle Ducomble headlining, is a Latin themed night, but the others are open to mix of songs and styles."

While Mancio is enthusiastic about all of her collaborations, two of them stand out. "One is with Tom Cawley, the pianist. He suggested that we write new material for our set, which we are doing. We've never written together before so that's really exciting. The other is with Gareth Lockrane, a voice and flute duo, which is another creative challenge. I don't think about my collaborations until I've programmed the main artists. Then I think about what might work in a support slot: not just in terms of the sound but also in terms of the audience the headliner will attract. There is also an element of surprise, of course: let's see what happens on the night."

Mancio's show with Liane Carroll and Ian Shaw is one example of the "let's see what happens" approach. The three singers—Shaw and Carroll are also pianists—have worked together before and Mancio is confident that they can create some surprises on the night. "When you're with such seasoned, confident, performers you know you can trust them. It will be a real contrast to my duos with Gareth and Tom, which we'll really hone in advance."

Collaborations are also to be found among the headline acts. Stilgoe and Martin, performing at the Watermill on the festival's opening night, will be bringing an existing show, albeit with a different title. Vinx will be bringing a very different partnership to the Pizza Express on 15 October.

Stilgoe and Martin's show is called Paris, City of Light. According to Stilgoe, he and Martin first performed this show at London's Crazy Coqs nightclub, in April 2014. They called it April In Paris. As Stilgoe explains, "You can't do a show called April In Paris in October, so I decided to call it Paris, City of Light. I think that's a lovely name for the city. We've loved finding all the songs. It's a very important city for Claire and for me. I got engaged in Paris."

Although he was speaking in August, almost two months ahead of his ReVoice! date, Stilgoe was able to give some details about the set list. "I'll do a couple of Charles Trenet songs in French—'I Wish You Love' and 'Boom.' Claire will sing Joni Mitchell's 'Free Man In Paris.' There'll be songs by Jacques Brel, Cole Porter and others, including Dave Frischberg's 'Another Song About Paris.'"

By contrast, Vinx takes a more improvisational approach to the planning of his set with tap dancer Lee Payne. The two men met by chance. "I live in the USA but I tour in Europe for five to six months every year. I was playing a festival in Germany. Lee came over to see some friends and we got talking. We decided to get together that night, to see if we can get people grooving through feet and instruments. He was up for it and it went great. Visually he's a beautiful man: I'm just an old, fat, singer. We got along like brothers."

Each performance is different. "It's fresh and new every time we do it: we never know exactly what we're going to do. We just go at it. Sometimes I'll start something, sometimes Lee will and I'll jump right in. I've used electronics for a long time and now Lee does too—I got him to put triggers on the ground so when he taps he can use electronics as well. We like it, that fresh conversation each time. I think it's brave of him to be such an adventurous dancer."

There's a YouTube video of the pair performing Vinx's "Captain's Song." It's a relaxed, laid-back, song that draws a similarly relaxed performance from Payne. Is it typical of a Vinx/Payne performance? "That song was pretty slow. I encourage Lee to sweat a lot, so he varies from slow soft shoe shuffle to manic tap. You can expect the unexpected. A guy who speaks with his feet and one who speaks with his hands and his mouth. The audience, the vibe it gives off, sets the tone. Sometimes they want to fall in love, sometimes they want to dance, sometimes they want to be amazed."

Vinx and Payne begin a show with a very loose structure. "Like any conversation, we say hello. Stuff happens in the middle, then we say goodbye. I don't think we think much about it in advance any more than you might think about what you're going to say before someone asks you a question. We've both been doing this for a long time, so we are comfortable with our fluency. We know we'll get started a certain way, just to feel comfortable, but we won't make that decision until maybe 10 minutes before we start."

The partnership is still relatively young. "We haven't worked together often enough. We've only done eight or nine shows. We also have a project called Groove Heroes, which is a full band. But as a duo, less than 10 shows."

Vinx has another collaboration in progress, a documentary movie called 50 Memoirs Of A Hip Ole' Black Man. "Once I turned 50 years old I thought, wow, what if this is all I get? How can I tell my story? I wrote 50 new songs in honour of the event, then a Dutch company started to make a documentary film. I've been working on it for seven years now, although the documentary only started four years ago." Parts of the movie are on YouTube, but it isn't yet finished. "I'm supposed to go to the Sundance Film Festival in January to see if I can get the funding to finish it. I want to bring in Stevie Wonder, Sting and other celebrities from my life: it costs a little bit to get them involved."

How does Vinx sum up 50 Memoirs Of A Hip Ole' Black Man? "The film is about a guy with a drum who travels the world. Never been a pop star, but carves out an independent career. It's a positive tale, not a Woe Is Me story." The final word about ReVoice! goes to Mancio, who speaks enthusiastically about the festival's closing show at Chelsea's 606 club, where she will perform with two more singers—Sara Colman and Randolph Matthews. "Steve Rubie, the club's owner, wanted the night to have its own identity, not just moving the Pizza Express show to a new venue. He suggested a three singer show with a band. It's a sister show to the one with Ian and Liane, but different. Sara, Randolph and I don't know each other in a musical sense, from performing together. Sara and Randolph don't know each other at all. I think that show will be really, really good."

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Vinx
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