Take Five With Ken Avis

Ken Avis By

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Meet Ken Avis:

London, Paris, Geneva, Washington DC guitarist/vocalist Ken Avis never imagined he would live in these cities after growing up in a Northern English coal mining town close to Liverpool. After travelling in over 80 counties, across four continents, he is now based in Northern Virginia with his wife, the stunning French Canadian vocalist Lynn Véronneau. Together they are putting their world experiences to good effect in the eclectic, multi-national music of their band, Véronneau.

Meeting in Geneva, Ken and Lynn debuted together at a festival in the mountains of France, they continued to perform and record internationally as a duo before forming a group (called, simply, Véronneau ) in 2010, with Brazilian jazz guitarist David Rosenblatt and drummer Pete Walby. In their first year, the band played numerous shows and received nominations for three awards from the Washington Area Music Association (WAMA). They delighted regional audiences with their world wise jazz ranging from bossa nova to samba, swing and gypsy jazz, performed in three languages.

Avis performed throughout Europe, the US and Canada during his early career. In London, he performed at legendary venues such as the Mean Fiddler, Dingwalls and the 100 Club. In the Washington, DC area he played the Kennedy Center and Strathmore Music Center as well as Rams Head in the nearby port city of Annapolis.

The youngest of four children, Ken stepped onto the stage when his family escaped the declining coal-town economy with a move to Blackpool, England's Las Vegas...without the sunshine! The holiday town provided an opportunity for teenage Ken to earn pocket money performing in hotels and bars before forming a working band to tour the music venues of northern England.

He played with such luminaries and friends as Dave Ball of Soft Cell and Chris Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys in school bands before heading south to Sussex University and the London School of Economics. Ken's musical adventures continued with a variety of bands including a five-year stint as the lead vocalist in London's Otis Grand big band, a WC Handy Blues Award winning group featuring horns and the celebrated guitar of Otis Grand. Then, suffering a stroke of practicality he went on to pursue day jobs in international development. That work took him to Paris, then Geneva and, finally, to the World Bank in Washington, DC.

A late convert to jazz guitar, Ken's initial influences were blues and soul music following an inevitable brush with, and enduring affinity for The Beatles. His favorite jazz album, since high school days, is {Ella Fitzgerald}} and Joe Pass' Take Love Easy, but only in the last five years, since enjoying a handful of lessons with ace guitarist Steve Abshire, did he begin to unlock the mysteries of jazz guitar. Now, with his band mates in Véronneau, he his bringing his performance experience to jazz audiences as they explore the world of jazz with timeless guitar driven melodies collected from Brazil, Mexico, France, Great Britain and the USA.


Nylon-string guitar, vocals.

Teachers and/or influences? I started taking lessons at age 10 from a big band guitarist. Then I "defected" to play in a series of soul, funk and blues bands. More recently I had some jazz lessons with Steve Abshire. I also learn an awful lot from David Rosenblatt, the other guitarist in my band. He is steeped in jazz theory and keen on Brazilian jazz.

The first LP I bought was The Beatles' Rubber Soul. After introduction to soul from hearing the Jackson 5 doing "ABCâ" when I was 10, I started to listen to UK soul, from Van Morrison, and the Average White Band. Favorite album of all time is Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass' Take Love Easy. That guitar and voice approach provided the basis for the work I did with Lynn Véronneau in Switzerland and France. (Lynn and I are now married and performing and recording in a band named for her: Véronneau.).

Favorite guitarists: Snooks Eaglin, Joe Pass, Jeff Beck, Bill Frisell.

I knew I wanted to be a musician when... I started to play for tips in hotels and talent contests at the age of 12. Forty years later I realize I was more instinctively right about most things at the age of 12 than in the intervening years! Or maybe I'm just regressing.

Your sound and approach to music:

I'm 100% about the audience. Communication and engagement is much more important to me than playing the right notes as fast as possible. The song is more important than the solo. I'm strong on setting the groove, David's the ace soloist. No gig too big—no gig too small.

Your dream band:

I'm in it—Véronneau. In another life I'd like to have been in the Faces before Rod Stewarts pants got too tight; they were totally engaging live.

Road story: Your best or worst experience:

The worst was breaking down in a van just coming of the M6 while heading to a gig in Leeds. A nice milkman took the whole band and equipment to the gig, making four trips in his electric milk delivery cart! When we got there, it turned out there was a wedding party at the venue and a fight broke out mid set between all the women. Tables were overturned as barricades. Bottles were thrown, and the band bravely played on.

Favorite venue:

Bistrot Lepic in Georgetown, where we play every month, is an absolute joy. The food's great. The staff is wonderful. We sell out every month and the audience has become like family—albeit a huge one. The cost of induction into the family is to just show up and enjoy.

Your favorite recording in your discography and why?

That's easy: the new one scheduled for release in spring of 2011. It's called Joi De Vivre, and it captures the sound of our new band (Véronneau) doing something different. I'm particularly fond of the way the voice mixes with the two nylon string guitars. That's the core of the sound. We added violin and saxophone on some tracks for some salt and pepper.

The first Jazz album I bought was:

Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass, Take Love Easy.

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically?

To begin with, we've got an international flavor. That's occurred naturally since I'm from Northern England, my wife Lynn is from a village outside of Montreal and our guitarist David Rosenblatt studied extensively in Brazil. We also have the ability to engage an audience through performance. We like to make every show an event and leave the venue with new friends. I particularly enjoy the positive reaction from audiences who don't typically listen to jazz, for example, when we play for a younger audience.

Did you know...

There are several things I might share. My life has been a bit surprising, even to me!

Growing up I played music during my school days with both Dave Ball of Soft Cell and Chris Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys. I spent five years as the vocalist with the (WC Handy Blues Award-winning) Otis Grand Blues Band, and toured much of the UK and the rest of Europe with them.

I also had a music agency license and worked as a musician and booking agent/promoter in the UK at the age of 18 until Punk Music took over English Music in the '70s. Then I went back to the drawing board. I got a BA in urban studies from the University of Sussex and took two years of graduate school at the London School of Economics.

My son, Tom Avis, seems to be following in my footsteps. He just graduated from the University of Toronto, with a degree in English literature and he's a performing musician and songwriter. My daughter is at the University of Guelph, studying international affairs. They both definitely have the traveling in their blood. We'll see about the music.

All told, I've lived in four countries: England, France, Switzerland and the USA, where I am now.

CDs you are listening to now:

I'm listening to music by Lorraine Feather, John Jorgenson. I'm especially enjoying Susie Ariole and Jordan Officer's That's for Me, and Half the Perfect World, by Madeleine Peyroux. I recently saw a great documentary about Harry Nilsson and I'm rediscovering all of the old vinyl albums I used to enjoy so much of him; Ringo Starr said, "Harry Nilsson is my favorite band."

Desert Island picks:

Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass, Take Love Easy;

Van Morrison, It's Too Late to Stop Now;

Django Reinhardt, Anthology;

Miles Davis, Birth of the Cool;

Snooks Eaglin, Street Corner Singer;

Nat King Cole Trio, The Best Of;

Etta James 'Life, Love and the Blues;

Taj Mahal, Like Never Before;

Harry Nilsson, Nilsson Schmilsson.

How would you describe the state of jazz today?

Jazz today is eclectic and global—boundary breaking. I love that, particularly in the UK, it's increasingly difficult to define jazz. It comes in different flavors and languages.

What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing?

I'd say, welcome eclecticism. Step away from The Real Book. Smile more. Engage the audience.

What is in the near future?

We'll continue to build on the band's success with audiences. In May 2011, we'll launch Joie de Vivre (Joy of Living), with concerts in the US, UK and Canada.

By Day:

I've worked with the World Bank for about 15 years, travelling to most corners of the world dealing with organizational development, team building, staffing and strategic facilitation issues. Music has always been an essential part of my life. At times there have been other things to attend to during the day, but my guitar has never been far from my reach.

If I weren't a jazz musician, I would be a:

Gentleman adventurer of independent means—or a gypsy. Having visited 43 countries across five continents and lived in five countries I do enjoy the experience of being in different places and trying to make sense of what's going on. Of course, there are limited opportunities to get paid for travelling like this, music being one of them. A nice trust fund would be a welcome backup!

Photo Credit

Courtesy of Ken Avis

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