Once upon a time in the relatively recent history of music, original songwriters were encouraged, loved and nurtured, allowing them the time, space and freedom to develop their art at a sensible pace. As they matured so did their music, and the listener could share their journey across many years and resulting album releases. Some made it into mainstream success, the likes of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Donald Fagen and Billy Joel. Some did not, but garnered cult status; the likes of Nick Drake, Tom Waits, John Martyn and Ben Folds. These days it is of course very different, with record companies demanding immediate success, people looking for instant fame and fortune, and accountants looking at profit and loss, the depressing cause and effect being a dumbing-down of music across a wide spectrum. So for a new, original artist to succeed in bringing us a fresh voice in the year 2015, above all else it takes three things: an unswerving dedication to his art from the musician, a record company willing to support and share the true value of original music, and an audience that is prepared to actively pursue and seek out new music in the hope of finding something fresh and enlightening. Little wonder then that the longevity of the songwriter is not what it used to be. But there is always hope. There is always a bright light at the end of the tunnel if you look hard enough. And the more you look, the more you find. Like an underground counter-culture the word spreads and the music rises above the norm, lifting our spirits and bringing a ray of sunshine back into our lives.
Enter then, centre stage, Oxford based singer, pianist, composer, Theo Jackson. It is April 2015 and most people will not yet be familiar with his name. Let’s hope by April 2016 many are, because we have here an original songwriting troubadour of quite some merit. At 29 years of age, Theo Jackson has had time to hone his songwriting and performance skills to a fine art, and his resulting debut album “Shoeless and The Girl” is as close to perfection as a debut will ever be. Perhaps best described as an original songwriter performing in a jazz style, this album is so refreshing in so many ways. For starters, the songs and the singer have a unique voice, making for an inspiring and hugely enjoyable listening experience. Jackson’s lyrics are often quirky yet always sincere and are delivered in that slightly English restrained way that never forces the issue. His music is melodic and lyrical with hooks-a-plenty effortlessly singing out from the keys of his piano, his jazz chops never in doubt. It is important to point out that this is no “jazz singer for the mainstream” album, this is every inch an original writer performing with a true understanding of jazz, old and new. A perfect example of this can be heard on two of Wayne Shorter’s classic tunes, “Footprints” and “Wild Flower”. For a young performer to take these pieces on, add his own lyrics, and to seek and get approval from Mr Shorter himself for said adaptations, shows a rare confidence and understanding. Shorter’s music is in fact the only non-originals on “Shoeless”, the other tunes all being Jackson compositions. The opener “Little do you know” quickly allows Jackson to assert his storytelling talents and introduce us to his musical collaborators, in particular the brilliant saxophonist Nethaniel Facey, of MOBO award winning band Empirical. Facey and Jackson have collaborated for years now and this shows, the duo obviously enjoy each other’s musical company. “Moonchild” takes us on an unconventional journey, to the moon and back, with a beautifully harmonised vocal at the heart of its chorus. Most of Jackson’s songs have an ethereal, other worldly quality to them. None more so than on the gentle, touching “Lonesome George” with its endearing bass melody line. The title track is a moving piece. As Jackson himself comments, “The characters I am most interested in tend to be loners. They are people who don’t feel as though they fit in with the societies around them. The song itself deals with the loneliness of two characters but it is also a sort of parable- the idea being that despite our seemingly vast differences, we all still share so much and that therefore none of us are truly alone in anything.” Well said indeed. The haunting and emotionally engaging “Bella’s Coming Home” shows a maturity in Jackson’s songwriting that belies his years. A gift for a foreign language is added to the proceedings with Jackson enjoying singing “Peu M’importe” in French. “Love and a shoestring”, one of many highlights on this recording, once again showcases Jackson’s distinctive and inventive approach to storytelling within a song. The session closes with what has to be the album’s killer track: “Camberwell Butterfly”. If there is to be a single released from this wonderful set of tunes, this has to be it. Stevie Wonder-esque in its nature, it’s a clever, enjoyable, crowd pleaser with all of Jackson’s talents succinctly rolled in to one.
Rarely does a debut album come up with the goods so consistently and wonderfully as this. Being very picky, one might like to hear Jackson sing out a little more…at times the vocals are just a tad too restrained. On a wider level, let us hope that Theo Jackson is given the continued support and encouragement to continue on the path he has started. It would be devastating if he took the tired old well trodden route of singing the predictable jazz tunes some audiences expect. If he continues writing and performing in his own unique and natural style, I for one will be waiting impatiently for the follow-up to this beguiling debut.