Vince Jones: ‘I have a Jekyll and Hyde approach to singing’

Vince Jones inhabits the songs he sings. His eschewing of showy vocal acrobatics, assured phrasing and sense of harmony has made him one of the most loved jazz singers in Australia. A soulful trumpeter as well, in 2014 he was dubbed the real thing by critic John Shand. In his more than 40 years in the music game, he’s released 17 albums, taken home an ARIA for Best Jazz Album (in 2016) and played with some of the best musicians this country has to offer. Vince will be performing some of his personal favourites in a retrospective show touring Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney in the coming weeks. I spoke to him about the show and a few other things as well.

You’ll be performing songs from your new album A Personal Selection in this upcoming series of shows. What draws you to want to sing particular songs? What is it about a song that attracts you?

The songs I’ve written and cowritten were moments in my life and the music helps me to reflect upon those moments. I like to sing songs that have elements of politics, social condition, environmental issues, generally songs that reflect the human condition. The melodies need to have elements of jazz, folk and soul music. I’ve tried hard to include all these elements into any songs that I write.

Who will be performing with you on this tour and what qualities do these musicians bring to the show youre presenting?

The players I enjoy making music with are genuinely creative people: Phil Slater, Julien Wilson, Steve Magnussen, Javier, Tony Floyd and Matt McMahon. I’ve watched their spirits grow, their individuality is reaching its peak, and their unique voices are coming through beautifully.

Great singers seem to possess a certain intangible quality that goes beyond timbre, phrasing and other technical aspects. Are you able to elucidate on that intangibility?

I’ve rarely listened to singers, but my dad was a Sarah Vaughan fan and her singing could be heard singing in our house often. I realised that Sarah, Billie, Holiday, Carmen McRae and Frank Sinatra were very much influenced by horn players. I think this is where the hip phrasing comes from.

Do you think singers need to have a certain temperament to perform some songs, particularly ballads and love songs?

Vocalists need to get their ego out of the way and just sing the song. The songs that have stood the test of time don’t really need interpreting, ones where the melody is so special, where they’ve been written by great musicians such as Cole Porter etc. I have a Jekyll and Hyde approach to singing: Dr Jekyll gets out of the way and allows Mr Egoless Hyde to just sing the song. It’s not easy to do. I’m still working on it.

I’m interested to know if you have any trumpet heroes. What do you admire about these musicians?

I grew up listening to Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard and many more. I always preferred to listen to a good horn player than a vocalist. These men were not only great musicians they were all Vanguardists, breaking ground making new music and they were never scared of taking a chance.

What about singers? Who of today’s singers do you enjoy listening to?

I don’t listen to singers much. There are very few jazz singers who actually make the changes. They ‘scooby dooby’ through the changes and that drives me mad. Cecile McLorin Salvant can sing changes and she has a beautiful rich tone. She just needs to get older and grow confident with her own sound. We do have some beautiful jazz singers in this country too – Kristin Berardi and Katie Noonan are superb hard-working artists.

Do you have any advice for young singers trying to improve their craft?

I was 30 when I first went to New York and saw wonderful musicians. I was shocked at how small the clubs were and how poorly attended the gigs were. I saw Art Blakey and Betty Carter in small clubs in New York – great bands but playing to rooms only half-full. This is jazz. To play music you have to see it as a verb and not a noun. Jazz is a life of touring and performing at small and large venues. We travel constantly to bring music to people. I myself have played over 5,000 gigs and spent nine years in hotel rooms.

You need to think about what is ahead for you: it’s not instant success like a pop star. Don’t take drugs and keep your alcohol intake to a minimum and you’ll survive and maybe even make beautiful music.

How far ahead do you like to plan? Do you have a list of projects youd like to do in the coming years or do you have a more project-based approach?

If you write every day, who knows where you’ll end up and where your songs will go?

See Vince Jones performA Personal Selection: