An equally passionate jazz vocalist and advocate for the music, Joan Watson-Jones is well known throughout Northern New England as both a swinging singer and the hostess of her own popular jazz shows, the cable television program Tha Jazz Room Live and the internet based radio program The Jazz Room (her 1/2 hour show on www.cyberstationusa.com). Born and raised in Harlem U.S.A., where she grew up to the sounds of Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday (both patients of her physician father, a founder of the Upper Manhattan Medical Group, the AfroAmerican community health institution immortalized in song through Billy Strayhorn’s classic composition UMMG). With show business flowing in her veins (her mother was a dancer at Paris’ famed Moulin Rouge) Joan studied both tap dancing and piano as a youth and went on to become a full time music teacher and part time live performer. Currently a resident of New Hampshire, retired from academia, Watson-Jones is devoted to the world of jazz as a full time active performing/recording artist and radio personality.
On Quiet Conversations, the followup to her earlier well received efforts One More Year and I Thought About You, the singer steps boldly into the spotlight on a program of intimate duets with her longtime pianist Frank Wilkins. A soulful, swinging, sensitive accompanist – the Berklee College alumnus, recipient of the school’s prestigious Hank Jones “Jazz Master” Award – Wilkins is the perfect accompanist, offering solid support to Watson-Jones’ delicate, often daring vocals. The relationship between singer and pianist/arranger/music director is indeed a close one and the intimacy of the association is even more pronounced when the pair are making music alone together. In Wilkins, Watson-Jones has found her perfect match and the date is a wonderful example of just how wonderful the results of such a rapport can be
Joan Watson-Jones and Frank Wilkins began performing several years ago upon the untimely passing of the singer’s original pianist just before the recording of her previous album I Thought About You. Singing with only Wilkins’ piano behind her at a memorial for a friend in New York, the vocalist felt a magical connection and decided then that a duo recording, something that her mentor — former Ellington vocalist Joyce Bryant, had encouraged — might well be in the offing. When she finally determined to make the dream a reality, she began selecting the material that she felt would show her off to the best effect. She notes, “Singers are storytellers and for me to sing a song it has to be meaningful to me.” And so the program here is somewhat autobiographical in nature, the stories of Joan Watson-Jones, tailored to a perfect fit with the accompaniment and arrangements of Frank Wilkins.
The opening Here’s To Life is the song that Watson-Jones and Wilkins originally performed together as a duo, so it is appropriate that it starts off this date. The singer first heard the now classic lyric sung by Shirley Horn, but it was a performance by Eartha Kitt, wailing on it with a big band and disco beat at the Newport Jazz Festival that sold her on it for her own repertoire. Joan proclaims the lyric with optimism as Wilkins buoys her hopefulness with subtle strength that aids her in giving her own upbeat meaning to the words.
Watson-Jones sings the classic You Don’t Know What Love Is with the voice of experience. She says, “It’s one of those songs I heard a lot growing up. So much in life we deal with loss. It speaks of loss and loss is very profound. I felt it was a good song to include because it covers a lot of ground that way. Singing with a dramatic delivery, her impeccable diction invests each word with deeper meaning, while Wilkins tells his own story with an entrancing piano countermelody and a solo of delicate beauty.
The mood lightens on May I Come In. Told by a colleague that she had “a lot of the tendencies of Blossom Dearie” Joan began investigating the idiosyncratic singer. “She was an original. She was brave enough to be herself.” Hearing the more that more than a bit of own self in Dearie, which her friend had noticed, she decided to adapt some pieces from Blossom’s repertoire for her own. She sings here with an almost kittenish tone and a near theatrical tongue in cheek – teasing yet serious – with Wilkins’ a reflecting the song’s ironic tone.
You and I is by Jon Marable, a marvelous singer songwriter, of whom it’s been said, “is the guy that singers and bands turn to for fresh, original songs.” This one certainly fits the bill and runs right up Joan’s storytelling alley as she sings the original romantic lyric with lyrical believability. Wilkins gets to stretch out on this one, confirming that he is indeed a talent deserving much wider recognition.
Van Morrison’s Have I Told You has long been a Watson-Jones favorite. She sings the gospel tinged tome with an convincing honesty that is stirring yet devoid of maudlin sentimentality in its compelling devotedness.
You Talk Too Much is another Jon Marable narrative. Joan pulls out all the stops in her humorous reading of the lyric which retells the tale once heard in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s My Fair Lady comical gem Show Me. Wilkins’ percussive barrelhouse accompaniment adds meaningfully to the amusing milieu.
The pianist’s dark opening chords and classically tinged lines add a palpable sense of tragedy to Watson-Jones’s dramatic recital of Ned Washington’s well known words to Dimitri Tiomkin’s classic melody Wild Is The Wind, in which she affirms that power can be evinced in a hushed tone.
Joan wrote the lyric to One More Year in answer to a challenge from her former piano player Hakim Law, to write a song. The singer, who composed the lyric in her car while driving down to New York City, remembers, “It came to me so fast, I didn’t know what hit me. It was a good thing I had a tape recorder in the car.” She brought the words to Law, who composed the appropriately touching accompanying melody.
It was a few years afterwards that Watson-Jones wrote both the words and music to Yes Dear, another autobiographical tale – this one drenched with a dry humor that recalls the work of the great Randy Newman that is further evoked in Wilkins’ slow bluesy New Orleans tinged piano. Written as a good natured tribute to her longtime husband, it should strike a meaningful chord with married couples all over the world.
The closing Forever Young is another family related outing. Remembering the song from the classic Rod Stewart video, it took on an added meaning for Joan upon her son’s 21st birthday, so she made a “home recording” of it and sent off a copy off as a birthday present. Here she shares her moving interpretation with the world for the first time
The song’s words are just as applicable to Joan Watson-Jones, who through the years has maintained the spirit of youth (tempered with maturity) in her music. With the able assistance of pianist Frank Wilkins she brings lyrics to life, in a way that is simultaneously refreshing and rewarding.