Ela Southgate Interview
Vocalist Ela Southgate spoke to Jim Burlong ahead of her concert ‘Ela With Strings’ at the Brighton Fringe Festival. Photo of Ela Southgate by Lisa Wormsley.
How did you get into music to start with?
My family was very musical, my mum was a teacher but could have pursued dancing as a career. She dabbled in playing double bass when I was young and my Dad was a professional jazz pianist, so I grew up listening to him play at home and out on local gigs in North London. I first came to Brighton to study a degree course in both fine art and music. After that I worked doing graphic design for a few years and it just so happened that the guitarist John Harris was my boss there. He did a weekly trio gig with Jeff Howlett and Keith Baxter in Mrs Fitzherberts pub. They were most encouraging and I often sat in, later becoming a regular fixture with them. I then became more focused on jazz and enrolled to study piano at the Chichester jazz course in 2003 when it was run by Adrian Kendon. It was a fantastic start on the road to becoming a more rounded musician. It’s one of ‘the beauties of jazz’ that there’s always more to learn. I gave up the day job and have been a full-time musician for around ten years now.
Which other vocalists have you most been influenced by?
There are so many that I love and have taken influence from, but at the top I would say are Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald and João Gilberto. I particularly love the tone along with the relaxed delivery of João. I like to listen to how these and other greats phrase the original melody, then change and play with it, and of course how they scat. I have only started scatting relatively recently myself and actually compose a lot of my own. Its a long road learning how to do it and I have found writing them out is a route in for me. I love transcribing Chet and Ella’s scats; I am always impressed by how in the pocket their rhythms are, along with the accuracy of pitch and the beauty of their melodic lines. I am just as much influenced by instrumentalists. I transcribe more piano and trumpet parts than I do vocalists. Some favourites of mine are Kenny Drew, Junior Mance, Bobby Hackett, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Louis Armstrong.
What do you think about the jazz scene in Brighton generally?
I think we have got a high standard of musicianship in Brighton. Maybe that’s why we have a thriving scene here. There’s high quality music on somewhere virtually every night of the week from The Hand In Hand, The Paris House and The Brunswick, to name a few. We also have The Verdict, a dedicated jazz club, in a relatively small city, which is pretty special. Brighton had some residents from the earlier generation of jazz, listening to them felt like hearing the real thing and amazing luck to have heard in the flesh, so beautiful and so in the pocket. In particular I am thinking of trumpeter Jo Hunter and the singer Joe Lee Wilson.
I know that you sing many songs from the bossa nova era. How important do you think that style has been to jazz over the years?
Very important I would say. Growing up listening to my dad play at home and at gigs, I assumed bossa nova was just another part of the jazz sound, like the difference between a ballad and a swing number, another colour and variation on a theme. It was not until later that I realised it was a whole genre from another country and I started to listen to and love the original recordings of the great Brazilian composers. The bossa nova composers like Jobim were so brilliant at writing songs with jazz harmony and jazz melody that to me they make the perfect balance in a performance of jazz, swing and ballads. The jazz greats used them liberally on recordings and at concerts, understanding how good the songs are for jazz sensibility and how interesting the chord sequences can be to improvise on. Over the years I have seen audience reactions to bossa nova and it seems the rhythm is so infectious and somehow familiar that it is really easy to connect with, even for people who consider themselves to be non- jazzers. It is an easy way in to listening to jazz harmony.
Tell us about the ‘Ela With Strings’ project, how you decided upon it and who your supporting musicians will be.
The title just popped into my head one morning when I woke up! My partner, guitarist Matt Wall, has written various arrangements that I have really loved over the years. Quite a few have been for the Three Little Birds vocal harmony group I am part of with Sara Oschlag and Rachel Simpson. Others are just for fun or for larger jazz ensembles with horns, so I thought he might enjoy or be persuaded to write some for our trio with trombonist Tim Wade plus a string quartet. I imagined we might do one or two and make videos for them as we have with other of his arrangements (a Christmas one with the late Jo Hunter being one of my favourites). Matt and I were chatting about it with Tim, and things snowballed. We thought it needed bass and drums, and as Tim was already putting on a show at the fringe called Speakeasy Revival, he said why don’t we do a whole concert too. We decided to go for it! I thought the title works on all levels, maybe the jazzers would get the reference to Charlie Parker with strings, although our arrangements are very modest in comparison, writing for a quartet rather than an orchestra. Non-jazzers and people who do not know me might know the name Ella as a jazz name and find the thought of something jazzy with strings appealing too. Our full line-up has now been confirmed as myself on vocals with Tim Wade (trombone), Matt Wall (guitar), Terry Pack (bass) and Sam Glasson (drums), along with a string section comprising Charlotte Glasson and Sheraine Lynsdale-Knock (violins), Bimbi Urquart (viola) and Jo Giddey (cello).
Let us know some of the songs people will hear on the night.
I think pretty much all the songs are those we picked for their interesting harmony, with some lesser known ones such as The Night We Called it A Day by Matt Dennis, Garden In The Rain by Carroll Gibbons, plus more familiar ones such as Someone To Watch Over Me by the Gershwins. I am pleased that Matt is also going to debut some of his original compositions and we also have some interesting bossas in the concert, such as Adeus by Edu Lobo and O Grande Amor by Jobim.
Ela With Strings
Ela With Strings will take take place at The Friends Meeting House, Ship Street, Brighton as part of the re-scheduled Brighton Fringe Festival on Sunday 6th June with two shows: 5pm and 7pm. Tickets are £10/8.