Jackie Bornstein: “I like to challenge myself musically”

Jackie Bornstein sure knows how to tell a story. In fact, she has so many stories, that she’s divided them in categories; she’s telling her romantic stories in a series of shows titled ‘From Paris to Rio’; she tells stories of resilience and struggle in her ‘Jazz and Social Justice’ shows; and sometimes she mixes things up, shifting moods within the same gig, delivering her stories in a playful, sexy, cheeky manner, managing to broaden your horizons without you even taking notice. Now the vocalist has a new project under way, one focus in stories of intimacy, the kind of intimacy developing between a voice and a guitar – or rather three guitars, played by some of Melbourne’s true masters.

Jackie Bornstein with James Sherlock and Nathan Slater

How did the Three Guitars project come to be?

This project is a celebration of guitar and voice duos. It’s a format I’ve loved since childhood, listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass. In my later teens I came across Tuck Andress and Patti Cathcart and consumed all their albums. Dianne Reeves and her duo performances with Russel Malone and Romero Lubambo have also been a huge inspiration, along with the collaboration between Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa and guitarist Nicolas Brizuela. My early musical partnerships as a developing singer were in duo with guitarists; with Blake Wilner in Perth and then with the Indonesian guitarist Balawan in Sydney. I’ve continued to perform in the voice/guitar duo format. I like to challenge myself musically and I find the duo format is pretty demanding; there’s no place to hide, you can’t take an extended break while other band members solo. I really enjoy the different places I go to musically with each guitarist I work with so I wanted to put that side by side in one performance space.

What is it about the guitar that appeals to you?

Jazz guitar has been a big part of my listening experience since I was a kid; Joe Pass, Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, Martin Taylor, George Benson, Pat Metheny, Emily Remler, and the list goes on. But I would say the same about piano, sax, voice, trumpet etc. I don’t think I would say I love the sound of guitar over other instruments. A beautiful instrument played beautifully is a pleasure to listen to and play with whether it’s guitar or not. I would say that I do particularly enjoy the experience of playing in duo with guitar. To me it feels very intimate and intense. We are facing each other and communicating without any other instrumental cover. Space becomes a big part of the collaboration too in a way that is not possible with larger ensembles.

How did you choose the guitarists who take part in it?

When I was studying at the Victorian College of Arts I worked behind the bar at Bennetts Lane Jazz Club. I got to regularly see and become familiar with the music of exceptional guitarists like Stephen Magnusson and James Sherlock. Now I am fortunate enough to play with them professionally. I came across Nathan Slater more recently when I was putting together an Asylum Seeker Resource Centre Fundraiser. I wanted to perform the song ‘Gracias A La Vida/Thanks To Life’ (by the Chilean composer and activist Violeta Parra) and needed an appropriate guitarist. Nathan Slater was recommended to me. I immediately fell in love with his playing and hoped to eventually build up a repertoire that would see us collaborating again. So I chose these three because I enjoy working with them on a personal level, I totally appreciate their playing and I wanted three guitarists with very distinctive styles to enable me to express my own diversity as a singer.

With Stephen Magnusson, I love his use of space and the intensity of every note he plays. I really enjoy the multiple influences I hear coming through in his performances and his groove-based material in particular.

James Sherlock plays with such beauty and sensitivity. He has a lot of experience working with singers and he’s a wonderfully supportive player to work with.

Nathan Slater’s playing is incredibly moving. He adds such depth to every piece we play together, infusing it with his own style and passion. Nathan’s brazilian, flamenco and world music influences enable me to explore music I love beyond the standard jazz repertoire, for example nueva cancion and chanson.

I think different aspects of my musicality and performance style are expressed organically with each of the guitarists. I’ve moved toward repertoire that I think best suits our particular sounds together. There’s a lot of trust involved in our interactions. We don’t get much time to rehearse so for me there is a sense of giving over to the moment, and I’m never let down because these three are such experienced and supportive players.

How did you work on the set list?

The distinctive styles of each guitarist and our sounds combined led naturally to a diverse repertoire. For me it’s also a challenging set list. Of course there are some comfortable favourites included, but I like to continually expand the languages, feels and aspects of my voice that I draw on when performing. For each guitarist I came up with a rough list of tunes I thought would suit our combined sound. We then got together and workshopped some songs, discarded some tunes and came up with a few new ideas for pieces to perform together. The first tune I rehearsed was with James Sherlock, a beautiful Jimmy Van Heusen ballad titled ‘Imagination’.

What is the story that you want to tell with this project?

I’m telling a multitude of stories with this project and I suppose that’s an overarching story; that everyone has a story worth listening to if you take the time to hear them. And that story might come through words or sounds or body movements or other forms of expression. With the three guitarists I’ll be sharing timeless stories from many cultures by performing pieces from the jazz, nueva cancion, chanson, pop and bossa nova traditions.

How does this project fit in with all your various ones?

I’ve drawn on material from many of my other projects for this one. My project ‘From Paris to Brazil’ is centred around tunes with Spanish, French and Portuguese lyrics and these feature in my set with Nathan Slater. Some of the tunes from my ‘Jazz and Social Justice’ show are on the set-list involving Stephen Magnusson. James Sherlock and I focus more on the jazz repertoire I perform with my Quartet. There are also pieces included that I don’t regularly perform because I think they are particularly well suited to the guitar/voice duo format.

What has been the highlight of your journey in music so far?

The highlight has probably been being able to combine my background in and passion for social justice with music. So that has been through the development of my ‘Jazz and Social Justice’ project that has performed at Bennetts Lane Jazz Club, Uptown Jazz Cafe, The Boite and Bird’s Basement. That project is a means of expressing the power of jazz as a force for creativity, unity and active peace. Combining my two passions has also included the wonderful collaborations I have coordinated, bringing a vast array of jazz musicians together to perform in support of our common humanity and to raise funds for people seeking asylum. I try to organize one or two of these a year.

What has been the main challenge that you’ve had to face?

I suppose the main challenge has been trying to live up to my own musical and performance standards whilst having an enormous amount of responsibility as a single mum of a beautiful boy who needs a lot of extra loving. Of course he comes first, so there are times when I have to rehearse or perform knowing that I haven’t had the level of preparation that I feel is required for a performance of the highest quality. But I’m learning to tolerate that tension and to see that new qualities are emerging in my performance now that I don’t have the time to feel totally in control of everything before I go on stage.

How did you get into jazz?

My father introduced us, me and my brother and sister, to jazz from birth. I grew up listening to big band swing, bebop and modern jazz, vocal and instrumental. I was singing along to Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Peggy Lee from an early age. I still have all those records. When I was in primary school, my brother introduced me to other jazz artists like Vince Jones, Mose Allison and George Benson. I began to explore for myself from there. For me jazz is a vehicle for expressing freedom and creativity; a means to collaborate and connect with others, experience respite from life’s challenges and share my deepest ideas and emotions. There are other ways to do this but jazz is my apparatus.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

I’ve just been snuggling with my son so I am going to say Keith Jarrett’s rendition of ‘Be My Love’ from his album The Melody at Night, with You.

It reminds me of how I connect with my boy each day. Jarrett’s interpretation is a devastatingly beautiful, oh so gentle and sensitive invitation to be loved.

Jackie with Three Guitars will be playing at theKew Court House (188 High St, Kew)on Saturday 17 February at 8pm (Tickets $29 / Concession $25)

On Tuesday 13 February, she will perform her project ‘From Paris to Rio’ at Bird’s Basement.

*Due to personal circumstances Nathan Slater is unable to perform onFebruary 17thand will be replaced by Sergio Ercole, a latin and classical guitarist hailing from Florence, who has been involved in the Melbourne music scene since the early 90s performing in a wide variety of musical ensembles and genres.

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