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Theo Jackson: Exploring the boundaries

| Music, Special Events, Venues | 13/02/2014

Theo Jackson
Photo by Ben Amure

Appearing at The Forge, Camden, February 27 + St James’ Theatre Studio, Belgravia, March 22

Theo Jackson is fast establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with on the Jazz scene, having returned to these shores from the US to two forthcoming London dates at The Forge in Camden and St James’ Theatre in Belgravia. Theo writes his own songs as well as offering a unique take on the standards. His slightly raspy voice belies the gentlest jazzy vibrato; imagine if you will Nick Drake in this genre and you’ll be somewhere near. I define Jackson as a contemporary storyteller and it’s one reason he cites Nick Drake as influential, alongside forces as diverse as Stevie Wonder and Tom Waits.

Theo muses that he’s “never had one particular method” for putting a song together. He refers to the “hundreds of notes” on his mobile: ideas and quotations, the kernels from which his songs grow. He learnt piano, unusually, as a mixture of formal training and playing by ear. His school music teacher first recognised a talent for singing and encouraged him to pursue studies further. The road led to Durham where Theo was the first to study Jazz full-time. We discuss how the academic pursuit of Jazz divides its genre. “In its early days,” Theo points out, “Jazz was distrusted and misrepresented in the academic world… It originated as popular music and community music, and we have to hang on to those roots.”

It is that divide between ‘serious’ Jazz and popular entertainment that Theo skits along so successfully: threading into what is, indeed, serious music. “It’s something that all Jazz musicians have in common,” he considers, “a real respect for where it started… they all see the beauty in the playing of Louis Armstrong for example.” I cite Armstrong as a great showman and Theo agrees. “We have the commercial side of it and the non-commercial side of it. They’re all under this one big banner of Jazz and that’s confusing.” Theo’s very special brand of laid-back, dusky Jazz is accessible enough to be much enjoyed by a wider audience. He explains that “I just want to be as good a Jazz musician as I can be. That means challenging myself.”

Theo’s imminent gig at The Forge will showcase his performance acumen in a live recording for a new EP of original material. In contrast, the St James’ date offers a themed evening in tribute to the great male Jazz vocalists. Theo relishes exploration and is brave enough to embrace it. An exciting place to be, for him and for his fans. That I find his music accessible pleases him. “Melodically and lyrically, I hope that there’s something that most people find interesting,” he explains, referring to “one song about the famous Galapagos tortoise George. That is a geeky tune in different time-signatures but tends to be one that all listeners seem to really appreciate because it’s hopefully quite lyrically sympathetic.”

‘Duologue’ photo by Bob Meyrick

‘Duologue’ photo by Bob Meyrick

Theo’s ‘Duologue’ recordings represent “a project with piano and vocals by myself and Nathaniel Facey, a fantastic alto-saxophonist…” It’s a conscious effort to create dialogue between the vocal and the instrumental, as Theo explains, “we’re trying to find an interaction – we don’t tend to have a very clear idea of what the structure’s going to be until we’re doing it. We said when we started that it’s about relying on our ears and mutual trust.” Not to overlook the confidence to err. “Yes, I make mistakes…” he laughs. And does that excite him? “It truly does, and I hope it excites an audience because they know that there’s really an unpredictable element to what’s going on. Spontaneity is key.”

“I don’t know why I’d be doing anything to do with music if I wasn’t performing,” Theo responds to the ‘why’ of my closing line. “I take a lot of pleasure from creating something from scratch… taking something from its original conception right through to performing it live.” I ask if he can imagine doing anything different and his answer surprises me: “I’d love to perform more Soul and Pop and Funk oriented stuff. I’d also like to seriously sit down and learn more about composing Classical music.” During those formative years did he see himself becoming a Jazz musician? “It did occur to me. I was performing Jazz from about sixteen onwards, and it kind of paid my way through my final year.” Thus proved his natural evolution.

The Forge concert features Theo’s quartet as well as the ‘Duologue’ project. The St James’ show “plays into the wider entertainment thing – a tribute to the likes of Mel Tormé and Jon Hendricks… the chance to swing some straight-ahead stuff and have fun.” The bright young thing concludes that “I like to have several projects running simultaneously. In some I get to explore more experimental music and quirkier stuff. It’s great to explore.” I should say so. Explore for yourself – and don’t miss a chance to partake in the craft of this most articulate of song-smiths.


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