Theo Jackson

“…I love being on stage. And I love playing before an invested audience, people who come there to genuinely listen. I love playing before those people; playing before an audience and putting on a show.” – Theo Jackson

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Theo Jackson is a gifted young singer/songwriter and pianist who writes with a maturity far beyond his youthful years. With a superlative debut album ‘Shoeless and the Girl’ receiving favourable feedback, both critically and publicly. Michael J Edwards sat down with the deep thinking and lateral thinking Theo, the day before his album showcase launch at St James’s Theatre Studio, London to get the inside track on the man and his music.

Michael J Edwards: Mr Theo Jackson it’s a pleasure to link up at last.

Theo Jackson: Hey, it’s lovely to sit down with you.

Michael J Edwards: Where did it all begin with you, growing up; were you surrounded by music in the Jackson household?

Theo Jackson: Not particularly, my parents are both music fans but neither of them has ever played an instrument to any high degree. What got me started is that my dad loved, and still loves, Billy Joel and Elton John and Bruce Springsteen. I was obsessed as a five and six-year-old with Billy Joel; the first gig I saw was Billy Joel at Wembley Arena on ‘The River of Dreams Tour’. My dad took me down after the gig as I’d had such a great time and he said, “Get something from merchandising, get a cap, get a T-shirt.” I ignored those but chose the lyrics booklet, which are still to this day. He says that was a sign of things to come. (Laughs)

Michael J Edwards: There is such a mixture of influences in your music; it is rather unfair to pigeonhole you into any specific genre. Who or what would you consider to be your key influences?

Theo Jackson: Yeah, it’s a fair question, because I’m not sure where I fit exactly musically speaking. There are a few names which are going to pop out, writing wise and from the Jazz era – Duke Ellington was a big influence; I love the way he writes, and Billy Strayhorn with him. (Thelonius) Monk, and then later I was obsessed for a long time, and still am with Stevie Wonder – he’s a spectacular composer and performer. More recently, I’ve been listening to some great bands that are out on the scene at the moment… Hiatus Kaiyote, who are a current band I believe they’re playing at Love Supreme this summer; Ambrose Akinmusire, and I love the likes of Gretchen Parlato and Becca Stevens over in New York, I think they’re doing great things.

Michael J Edwards: What led you to sign for Dot Time Records, an American/European company, rather than a UK-based label?

Theo Jackson: These guys (Dot Time) seemed very artist friendly, and they seem like they really want to support their artists. And I was approaching a record label with a very original project and they were willing to let me run riot and support me in doing so. That was one of the major reasons why we got on so well.

Michael J Edwards: On ‘Shoeless and the Girl’ some of your lyrics are quite quirky – is that a purposeful intent or does it just reflect the way you tend to look at life?

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Theo Jackson: I’m not sure it’s intentional, I don’t think it is; I think it’s quirky because I find the characters interesting, the characters get their quirkiness from me in a way. As with the song called ‘Lonesome George’ that track is quirky because of the subject matter, but actually I’m not sure it’s necessarily intentional, but more because it was a by-product of what I was writing about.

Michael J Edwards: The title track on the album talks about how two people, who feel alone, from different walks of life meet and realise none of us are actually alone – or shouldn’t feel we are anyway. It’s a lovely message – would you consider yourself a bit of a loner/outsider?

Theo Jackson: The honest truth, maybe a little bit, just because I think it’s part of my lifestyle. My office is my home, my piano is at home, I spend horrible amounts of time on my own at home practising and writing and thinking. It’s part of the lifestyle that I’m leading … It’s a bit like yourself, you require time alone to transcribe your interviews. So that’s the point, it’s a common experience, so although I feel alone I know that someone else is doing something very similar; so therefore you’re not really alone in doing that.

Michael J Edwards: Are you classically trained on piano and how old were you when you started playing?

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Theo Jackson: I studied classically a little bit as a kid, but I wasn’t very good at it. And then I did a Classical music degree, but I performed Jazz throughout. I studied Classical music theory, but not the musical side. But as a performer I was always the Jazz and Contemporary performer. I was never very good at Classical music to be honest.

Michael J Edwards: Did learning Classical theory stand you in good stead?

Theo Jackson: I think learning the basics of Jazz stood me in good stead, and that was part of the plan. Learning about Classical music in my own time, and as part of the degree, was fascinating. And maybe if anything, it imposed itself on my compositional work a little bit.

Michael J Edwards: Where did you study?

Theo Jackson: Durham University

Michael J Edwards: ‘Shoeless and the Girl’ – why the title?

Theo Jackson: The thing is, throughout the album I noticed a lot of these characters were a bit lonely – there are a lot of loners. So I picked out ‘Shoeless and the Girl’ because it had that parable, that suggestion that although they may be lonely characters, they were never truly alone because they had common experiences with other human beings. So the idea with ‘Shoeless and the Girl’ is that the story in itself was one that was actually, secretly, kind of uplifting – hopefully!

Michael J Edwards: When, and over what period of time, was it recorded?

Theo Jackson: It was recorded over three days in November 2014. It was recorded for the most part in the very Jazz way; we had the band playing live and I sat at the piano, singing at the same time. We had a limited budget and we had to get it down properly. So there are mistakes that are left in there, there’s some real-life stuff going on there. Some of it was actually done a little bit afterwards; with the help from a very good friend of mine who set up a temporary little studio in my house.

Michael J Edwards: Where was it recorded?

Theo Jackson: It was recorded almost completely at Eastcote Studios in London. It’s a nice place and I thoroughly recommend it. And then a little bit of vocals were added as well at Pana Studios, they helped me out.

Michael J Edwards: What is the back-story to the two Wayne Shorter covers ‘Footprints’ and ‘Wildflower’?

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Theo Jackson: The first one, ‘Footprints’ are the only lyrics on the album which are predominantly written by someone else – I helped edit them a bit, but it was primarily written by the guy producing the album, a guy called Giazonne Reyes. He’s been a long-time collaborator of mine, we met back in University, and ever since then we’ve collaborated a lot. He’s just literally in the last week moved to London, so I can’t wait to see him getting involved in the London scene…I can’t wait to be writing with him again. Yeah, so he wrote that lyric predominantly himself; and it’s fascinating because he said it follows the story of this recurring dream he used to have.

In this dream he’d wake up and he’d been in the middle of the woods, and the snow was falling, and he’d see a former lover of his in the distance. He’d see her and he’d shout her name, but she wouldn’t listen, and she’d walk away from him. So he started to try to catch up with her. As he was trying to reach her she was getting further and further into the distance. In the end all he could do was follow the footprints in the snow, and after a while the footprints in the snow faded, and in the end he was left without her. Powerful stuff! And he took that imagery and he put it into his lyrics, which I think was really beautiful. The other Wayne Shorter tune was a tune called ‘Wildflower’, it’s a beautiful tune, and I wrote the lyrics for that one which kind of parallels the flower and a person’s life cycle; it’s kind of a parallel between the two.

Michael J Edwards: And Wayne Shorter, how was he when you approached him?

Theo Jackson: I’d love to say that I spoke to him in person, but in fact he heard them personally and signed off on them – so I’m happy enough with that for the time being.

Michael J Edwards: Which is your favourite track to perform live?

Theo Jackson: I enjoy ‘Footprints’ actually; it’s got a real fun groove to it… There’s a bit more of a pop/crossover track at the end of the album called ‘Camberwell Butterfly’ which is very lively, and I think that’s going to be one I’ll end my performances with.

Michael J Edwards: Please give us the lowdown on the tight band you’ve put together for your live performances and is it the same as on your album?

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L-R: Theo Jackson; Huntley Gordon; Leo Richardson; Marco Quarantotto
Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Theo Jackson: It is the same band as the album yes; and it’s the same band that I have been using for every gig recently. There’s Huntly Gordon on the double bass and Marco Quarantotto on the drums. We only came together as a band about a month before the recording. I was due to go on record with other musicians, but brilliant musicians that they are, they weren’t able to give me all the time that we needed. So I took the decision to go with some completely new guys, it was kind of last-minute, and it paid off better than I could possibly hope. It was a crazy decision, but these guys have been incredibly supportive. They contributed a lot artistically as well, they came in and we rehearsed a lot. They gave a lot of their time, but also their ideas, they really gave a lot to the arrangements. They really invested a lot into the project, which was beautiful, and I’ve been incredibly lucky. The other guy who’s joining us is called Leo Richardson, who plays tenor sax and he plays on a few of the tracks on the album as well. We have three horn players on the album and Leo appears the most of those three. He’s a very soulful tenor player; he’s got a great sound.

Michael J Edwards: What does the future hold, on both record and stage?

Theo Jackson: In the immediate future we have a trip to Germany; we’re playing at a showcase called JazzAhead in Bremen. I’m taking the trio over in the hope that I get some more industry exposure and international work; it’s quite exciting. We’re hoping to be able to announce some bits and bobs in the next couple weeks.

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

We’re doing another tour, a completely different tour, ‘Door to Door’ – that’s my name for it anyway. We’re going to be playing at all kinds of unlikely venues, private houses and all sorts of weird venues. The idea being that we’re trying to reach an audience that wouldn’t necessarily come to a Jazz Club or Festival. So what I suggest is if there are any readers find that in any way interesting, take a look at my website and get in touch. We’re literally playing to upward of fifteen people and really small venues including living rooms. So if you think that it is interesting, or you think you might fancy it, get in touch; it will be literally like playing concerts in your house.

So hopefully we’re going to reach people who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to afford to come to a Jazz Club, people more my own age. I noticed that whilst playing some of the premier Jazz Clubs. It’s a great privilege, but at the same time people my own age struggle to afford the cost. They have to pay for a ticket, and then they have to pay for dinner and drinks etc. By the time they’ve done all that it’s an expensive night out. We’re not the richest generation and we’re trying to promote Jazz as well. This is partially to try to reach people who wouldn’t necessarily be able to afford a concert.

Michael J Edwards: It’s quirky and original?

Theo Jackson: Yeah, I hope it works out. The first shows will be me performing solo, but we’re going to do some London one’s where I hope to get the trio in.

Michael J Edwards: You played a live album showcase gig at St James’s Theatre Studio, London. Were you excited, and is that when you come to life, looking at the eyeballs of your audience? I appreciate you get nervous before a performance.

Theo Jackson: I do, but my nerves manifest themselves in different ways, but the thing is, I love being on stage. And I love playing before an invested audience, people who come there to genuinely listen. I love playing before those people; playing before an audience and putting on a show. In fairness, it’s not a criticism of all Jazz musicians, but I think it’s something that can be lacking in our music slightly. There can be an element of Jazz as a recital, as opposed to entertainment. There should be less of the divide there, more of a mixture sometimes, but not always. For me I like putting on a bit of a show, to try to get some energy out into the room.

I’ve been told I pull the most horrific faces when I’m playing the piano. (Laughs) Really awkward faces! I don’t know if I should trademark it yet. I tend to make quite a lot of involuntary noises whilst playing, I often scream and shout. If someone is playing an awesome lick on the horn or whatever, I show some appreciation right from the piano.

Michael J Edwards: Which vocalists inspire you?

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Theo Jackson: Vocally speaking I’m not necessarily a fan of pinpoint perfect vocals for the sake of doing so, for the sake of having it. My favourite vocalist, probably in the world is a guy called Andy Bey – I mean, what a great guy! The reason I love him, it’s just because of the emotion he conveys. It’s not that he’s technically perfect, just the warmth of the sound and the way he conveys emotion in the lyric. So I think if I could pick out one singer in my life just purely for singing that has been my biggest influence, it would be him. I don’t sound anything like him.

Michael J Edwards: Obviously you would like to duet with him?

Theo Jackson: Oh, I would love to, yeah! So if I ever got the opportunity that would be great. Another guy who influenced me was Jon Hendricks. He’s a great improvisational Jazz singer. I had the pleasure to meet him a couple of years back which was great. Back to Stevie (Wonder) again, I think Stevie is one of the most magnificent vocalists of all time, and Donny Hathaway as well, particularly the track ‘For All We Know’ – that as a vocal performance is amazing. I also love the vocals of Jeff Buckley and Nick Drake, and Tom Waits even – I know, he’s a crazy vocalists, but I like the way he conveys the lyric. Sarah Vaughn is also a great vocalist. I could go on and on.

Michael J Edwards: Your advice for young artists entering the industry given your experience thus far?

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Theo Jackson: It’s constantly getting tougher, and your live game has to be very good as CD and record sales have fallen so much because of streaming. So make sure that you play well live, and if you don’t then don’t bother. Also make sure that you have good people around you, both professionally and personally, because in both respects you’ll need support, especially if you’re a leader of a project and creating your own music. I found it invaluable, especially recently to have some incredibly supportive people around me, both professionally and personally – in the form of the band who have been fantastic, and in the form of my friends and family who have been incredibly supportive.

Michael J Edwards: If not singing and playing Jazz, what career path might you have taken?

Theo Jackson: I get the impression that I would always have been self-employed; I don’t deal very well with authority. I’m not very good at having a boss, and I think I probably would have ended up writing fiction or doing something in academia, I’m not sure. I imagine it would still require a creative output of some description.

Michael J Edwards: If not piano what instrument would you like to learn?

Theo Jackson: I’ve always wanted to learn the trumpet; I still want to learn the trumpet. I told myself I’m not allowed to learn anything new until I’ve got better with what I play now. But I’d still like to learn the trumpet someday – so yes, that’s on my list.

Michael J Edwards: My UK Vibe colleague Mike Gates says his daughter, Kia, wants to marry you – are you open for offers or is there already a Mrs TJ?

Theo Jackson: There’s currently no Mrs TJ, but I’m working on it (Laughs).

Michael J Edwards: Theo, we at UK Vibe wish you all the best for your future career. Thanks for taking time out to talk to us, and we’re looking forward to documenting your career as it develops, as well as imbibing the Theo Jackson live experience, be it in concert halls, Jazz clubs or living rooms.

Theo Jackson: I really appreciate it, thank you.

Michael J Edwards

Essential Album:
Shoeless and the Girl (CD 2015, Dot Time Records)

Essential Website:
http://www.theojackson.com/

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

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