Blowing the Status Quo From Its Comfort Zone With a Voice as Sweet and Dark as Shoo-fly Pie
Giacomo Gates Color (300 dpi)
Photo credit: Andrzej Pilarczyk
“Gates is more than a jazz singer. He’s a musician, a hornman who ‘plays’ through a wonderfully weathered baritone voice. He’s also a storyteller, a traveler who’s seen and lived a lot of life. It’s a combination that gives his performance an unusually deep emotional and musical resonance. Giacomo Gates just may be the Dennis Hopper of vocal Jazz.”
-Chuck Berg, Topeka Journal
Giacomo Gates is a baritone jazz singer known for his engaging vocalese, a form made famous by Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, among others. Vocalese is composed by fitting new lyrics to jazz tunes and even to fast, complex instrumental solos.
A couple of years ago I went to meet Gates and hear him sing at Blackstone’s in Laconia, New Hampshire, as part of the New Hampshire Jazz performances.
Singing “Pretty Baby”
Giacomo Gates had his first singing engagement at the age of six. He’d been enrolled in a tap dancing class. “When the recital was about to take place,” he recalls, “I didn’t want to dance. I was told, ‘If you don’t dance, you’ll have to sing.’ Solid. I sang ‘Pretty Baby’ in front of eight boys and girls tapping. That was my first gig!”
Many gigs later, it’s 2014 and we’re at the posh Margate Resort in Laconia, on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee, the summer home of city folk who descend like clouds of locusts to take in beaches, forests, miles of small amusement parks, and every water sport imaginable.
We enter the beautifully designed main building and after some labyrinthine wandering arrive at Blackstone’s, a deliciously intimate yet airy enclave. There we meet Jonathan Lorentz, his pork pie hat sheltering an incongruously fresh face (why does one always expect a weathered visage under such a hat?). Lorentz is the founder of New Hampshire Jazz, a wonderful new initiative to bring the best live acts to local and visiting jazz fans. Music promoter is his second vocation; he’s himself widely lauded as a sax master.
Bassist Bruce Gertz and pianist John Funkhouser mount the stage, take their places, and nonchalantly begin to open up an immense musical vista that sweeps away the mundane and adds a dimension of timeless elegance. In the audience we’re instantly connected to the rich, manifold history of jazz while at the same time checking out a way forward into a new unknown.
Lorentz arrives to introduce the musicians. He then presents Giacomo Gates.
Giacomo mounts the stage, folds his lanky frame onto a wooden bar stool, politely gives Bruce and John a song and a key, and launches into a standard. The experience of seeing and hearing him live after having listened to his recordings for a week is like walking from a closet into an arena. The man is a natural performer and his voice is better suited to spaces than to audio recordings.
And in the one area that makes jazz performance so delightful to watch—that of group rapport—this little group is a joy to observe. Giacomo signals solos and whispers song titles and keys as Funkhouser grins his approval after a particularly sweet bit of singing. We hear the mounting mutual approval in the piano keys and bass strings, and even in Giacomo’s singing as he’s egged on by ever more witty and energized playing.
During the intermission I ask Gertz and Funkhouser how long they’ve been playing with Giacomo. John looks at his watch and smiles: “Just over an hour.”
“No,” I correct them. “How long in total?”
“Yeah. That’s it. An hour.”
Weddings, Highways, Dams, and Casinos
Giacomo Gates with Sweet Lou Donaldson and Fred Smith (300 dpi)
Photo credit: John Brathwaite
Gates was born and raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut. His father was a skilled welder who worked on aircraft and racing cars and later in life did torch metal sculpting. His mother was a seamstress and homemaker.
Growing up, Giacomo listened to his dad’s classical and big band records. In addition to exposing him to good music, his father set an example of musical discipline by being an accomplished amateur violinist. Giacomo began taking guitar lessons at the age of eight.
“By the age of 16,” he says, “I was playing with musicians who were in their late teens or early 20s, and we played for weddings. Back then wedding music came from The Great American Songbook: Cole Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers & Hart, Arlen, Berlin, etc. I was exposed to some of the best music of the mid-20th century. By the time I reached my late teens, my interest in playing the guitar lessened, but I continued to sing for the fun of it.”
Giacomo attended an engineering college but dropped out after a year. He preferred, he says, actually constructing roads to drawing up the plans for their construction.
“At the age of 25, I split for Fairbanks, Alaska, because I’d heard about the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline and had always been interested in Alaska and Australia. It took me a year to get the kind of work I was interested in, and in the meantime I worked odd jobs: bartender, sheet rocker, landscaper, tour bus driver, railroad labourer, carpenter’s helper, and relief dealer and bouncer in a gambling casino, where I also occasionally escorted some of the working girls back and forth to work.
“I worked and lived in Alaska for several years, then spent a year in Washington State, a season in Arizona, and a short time in Louisiana, working road construction, dam jobs, and offshore drill rigs.”
When the Jazz Man’s Testifyin’ . . .
We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.
Giacomo’s voice is as mellifluous as honey on buttered toast, his improvisation subtle but original. We usually assume that this good a voice would have to be the product of years of intense training, but Giacomo seems simply to have been gifted with a natural affinity for jazz.
“I always had an interest in jazz music specifically; it was part of my life, though I never pursued it as a vocation,” he says. “I didn’t one day ‘decide’ to become a jazz singer—that’s madness. I was connected to the music since I was a kid. I knew the language.”
How it All Started
“One year, while living in Fairbanks, I attended a festival that presented a two-week vocal workshop. Several instructors, among them Grover Sales, encouraged me. Sales said, ‘You’ll never get heard up here!’ ‘I’m not tryin’ to get heard,’ I told him. ‘I live here.’”
After almost 20 years of construction work, Giacomo decided to move back to New York to take advantage of the music scene that thrived in the city—and in the surrounding area—and to launch a musical career:
“I tried to make some noise first locally, then regionally. I got my first recording, Blue Skies, done by DMP Records, and that helped me to get around more and to get some national work.”
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
“I got a great education from recordings and I saw and heard (and sat in with) some of the best of the best, including Miles, The Basie Band with Basie, Joe Williams, Sarah Vaughn, Carmen McRae, Jon Hendricks & Company, Dizzy, Dexter Gordon, Frank Foster, Lou Donaldson, Billy Mitchell, Buddy Tate, Steve Allen, Max Roach, Billy Taylor, Mose Allison, Sheila Jordan, Mark Murphy, Walter Bishop Jr., along with performers of other kinds of top-notch music like James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Al Jarreau, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, and many more.”
“The Language, the Hipsters, the Cats and Chicks”
Giacomo’s vocabulary is inspired by the era in which the notion of “cool” was first distilled, his lingo liberally peppered with words like “dig,” “hip,” and “baby.” This makes his on-stage patter almost as delightful as the songs it frames.
“A very strong influence for me was Grover Sales, who was connected to the music and to people like Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley, ‘Professor’ Irwin Corey, and Jonathan Winters,” Gates says. “I dug the scene that the music came from—the clubs, the clothes, the era, the language, the hipsters, the cats and chicks!
The Revolution Will Be . . .
Basie was never really commonplace—he was always measures ahead.
Ellington was more than number one for the music and things that he said.
Bird was the word back when tenors were heard
from Kansas right up to the pres (Lester Young)
Billie was really the queen of the scene that keeps echoing on in my head.
What it has will surely last, but is that jazz?” ~Gil Scott-Heron, “Is That Jazz?”
“Regarding The Revolution Will Be Jazz [the songs of Gil Scott-Heron]. . . I was hip to Gil when he landed on the scene, and to The Last Poets. The planet was a different place in the late ’60s and early ’70’s.”
Gil Scott-Heron’s status as an American cultural icon is primarily based on his early ’70s spoken word recording “The Revolution Will Not be Televised,” a weighty but thrilling prophecy influencing scores of young folks to shrug off their culturally imposed ignorance and apathy and dedicate themselves to positive social change.
One of these young people, record producer Mark Ruffin, recently got a hankering to produce an album covering Scott-Heron jazz songs in the vocalese baritone style that Gil had exemplified. Baritone Giacomo Gates was the perfect fit. Also appropriate: the fact that he was a veteran of years of remarkable jazz achievements, had rubbed shoulders with jazz greats (Sarah Vaughan was one mentor), and possessed a deeply rooted beatnik aesthetic.
Gil created almost two dozen albums in his lifetime, but when Gates was going through the oeuvre picking the songs for this new album he steered away from the better-known ditties and reduced his selection to a collection of songs notable for their subtle but pointed social commentary.
As Giacomo explained, some Americans still feel threatened by the songs of Gil Scott-Heron even though he says nothing overtly threatening. If certain white folks could get past their false sense that the protests of African-American activists are somehow a threat to them personally, they’d find much edification in these songs, which in essence are telling us to toss our unexamined lives and really start living.
“When I was approached to sing Gil’s songs, I listened to over 40 tunes that were presented to me and chose the ones that I felt I could sing honestly. Some were funny, some weren’t, some were about the music, some were about the messed-up world we live in, and some were about the beautiful world we live in. Gil had a lot to say that was ahead of its time and valid. I grew up in an inner city, on the Northeast corridor, so I could relate. I had fun with the music and the lyrics. The album was number one for six weeks on National Jazz Radio and got lots of good ink.”
Giacomo Gates Color (300 dpi)
Photo credit: John Abbott
“On creativity, there’s so much music already written. I have so many books of music and recordings I’ll never have the time to listen and look at everything, and one thing leads to another. There’s not enough time. What to do next is not an issue.”