Faye Patton talks about her music like a rapid-fire ball of yarn of musical associations that she must unravel quickly for fear of not getting it all out. The sharply felt passion for what she does (and learning new ways to do it) is in-your-face, leaving her breathless and energized. Faye’s full of ideas, spinoffs, tangents, and half-sentences, thoughts that bleed and run into one another like a watercolor painting. You’d swear she’s song-writing whenever she opens her mouth, even in – especially in – conversation.
In a way, her sound is folksy and bluesy; also ringing a bell for the great classic icons of jazz from early mid-century. Tackling contemporary yet age-old themes of love, loss, anxiety and insecurity, her legacy might just become “leaving no stone unturned.”
What was your music education like?
I was lucky. I had piano lessons as a kid, and they were expensive in those days. I didn’t like classical piano music so much and became more interested in guitar. My dad is a pretty good classical guitar player and taught me as much as I could absorb. He got me started on classical guitar pieces by Heitor Villa-Lobos and a bit of Jimi Hendrix. At school there were opportunities to be in school musicals – I was Tallulah in Bugsy Malone. I still know all the music! In my 20s I finally took myself through all the guitar grades and joined a music project where I got to study with gospel singers and session players. That made me fall back in love with the piano again …
What was the “aha” moment that you knew you would choose music for your path?
I always knew it – there was no magic moment as such. But there was a period of decision-making where I realized I’d have to let some other things go – art, drama and writing were the other things I was into and was good at. Anything I had to say in these art forms I can say best in music – so in the end, the best medium emerged.
What classic jazz icons do you admire and who influence your writing?
Many, past and present – not all ‘jazz’. Randomly: Ray Charles, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, BB King, Carmen McCrae, Hazel Scott, Mahalia Jackson, Horace Silver and Cole Porter; jazz pianists Hiromi Uehara and Chihiro Yamanaka. Also Rachelle Ferrell and George Duke, Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Phyllis Hyman, DeeDee Bridgewater, Carole King and Nina Simone, Laura Nyro and Patrice Rushen. Gladys Bentley, Alberta Hunter, Valaida Snow, Barbara Lynn. Obviously, Alice and John Coltrane. Miles Davis. Carlos Santana. Mary Lou Wiilams, Marian McPartland. Ornette Coleman, Diamanda Galas, Rikki Lee Jones, Ethel Waters, Kenny Burrell, Larry Coryell, Emily Remler…
Bluesy-growly sound from way down low- that comes naturally?
Yes, it seems to. I have quite a low speaking voice which goes super croaky if I overuse it. And quite a big larynx. But I also sing really, really high. I teach singing and I’ve found that it’s all one tube, in the end. Sing freely and with relaxation at the top and the bottom will be relaxed, likewise start off in the bass and the top notes will be supported. Travelling the ground in between is just a leap of faith, energy, oxygen and exploration. It’s always from way down low, even in the high places. It’s from the ground (and the heavens and the great beyond) via the whole body. I had to do an appearance at a festival in Germany once, with very bad hay fever – I lost my high range COMPLETELY. I had to sing my entire oeuvre – an octave down. Seriously. Luckily no-one knew me – talk about authentic blues sounding!
What themes inspire your lyrics?
Love, mainly. It messes with us all. It’s messing with me right now! Also the daily grind of living. Passion and compassion, soul survival, warrior instinct. We all have mantras to keep us sane and moving forward. I like to sing mine onstage. My love songs are unusual as I’m singing everything from an LGBT perspective. Honestly, openly. With ‘she’ and ‘her’ pronouns. It’s all there in the lyrics. I wouldn’t know how to do otherwise. The only others to my knowledge that have really done this openly in jazz (or anywhere) are KD Lang, Meshell Ndegeocello, Rufus Wainwright and Lea Delaria. Some people think that love is a boring topic but believe me it’s not, when your kind of love and sex is illegal in many parts of the world.
There is pain in your songs – is this a universality in jazz?
Don’t know if it’s true of jazz generally – but it’s true of songwriters or instrumentalists who sing of love and or who speak of struggle against the odds. Jazz can also be very cheeky, light, happy and upbeat – so really it comes down to the individual style of the artist. Jazz is a feeling that inevitably has the root pain of the blues in it. And the cracks and tears in the voice from crying, or just singing too hard, too long, for too little supper! Sometimes there’s pain in acute happiness. Ecstasy can hurt. Anything worth doing is worth doing until it’s hurting.
Personnel in your band, how you came together?
This is not the original line-up, but nearly. We’ve gigged on and off for 10-15 years. Long enough ago that my drummer and guitarist were the students of a band member in an entirely different band that I was in at the time. The sax player in the videos is actually Tony Kofi who is world-famous in his own right and a generation older than me! In fact he walked into that gig pretty much off a plane that very day. We had about an hour’s rehearsal! He is very kind and very supportive and a lovely person to know. He has encouraged me from day one. Plus he’s a stupendous player. It’s so important to play with and know them as friends. The players are genuine role models. It’s important to see that one can survive and thrive in this business as the years progress.
What instruments do you play?
A frequently asked question! Guitars, pianos, keyboards, voice and a bit of percussion. I actually trained in funk drumming (Moeller technique) and also play the bodhran (traditional Irish drum). I have a grade 8 qualification in guitar – it’s the one I’m most academically trained in I suppose.
What do you mean by “nu”?
It was coined by another UK jazz artist (Juliet Kelly) who had programmed me to appear in a concert night she was heading up. She put on a night called ‘Nu Jazz Divas’ with myself and cellist/singer/composer Ayanna Witter-Johnson – who later played cello on my current album. I’d been struggling to place myself on the scene and was too poppy and melodic for jazz but definitely too jazzy for the singer-songwriter nights I was playing at, and pissing off the promoters as I played songs that were seven minutes long!
“Nu” is useful as it identifies my music as classic but contemporary, with the emphasis on my own songs which contain too many jazz reference points not to be jazz. An unusual artistic flavor with a feel that is perfect for our times.
Once the gospel influence hit my folk background, the cocktail started fizzing and it was just a steady road to where I am now; via Junior Mance, Duke Ellington, Santana, Chick Corea, Kirk Franklin, Herbie Hancock, Prince, Yolanda Adams, Diamanda Galas, Bjork, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jhelissa Anderson, Horace Silver, Dianne Reeves, George Duke, Dinah Washington and every big jazz diva of the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s plus a nice dose of helpfully termed – and extremely jazzy – “nu soul” artists Mica Paris, D’Angelo and Erykah Badu, who made a big impression on me.
Jazz is a huge genre. Take any instrument or discipline and put “jazz” in front of it. Put it in an elevator or an ad, you have an instant vibe and evocation of time and place. Classic Jazz. Modern Jazz. Free Jazz. Jazz Hip Hop. Be Bop. Doo Wop. Lindy Hop. All that Jazz. Jazz it up. Endless permutations and associations.
Enough wordplay to recall Cole Porter. Just enough bluesy snap, crackle and heartache to evoke Etta James. Enough stride to conjure Ray Charles or Scott Joplin. Enough theatrics to summon up a bit of Otis. Enough space-age beatnik hyper poetry to bring some Donald Fagenish/Americana into the mix. And some Judy Garland high camp. The recipe starts to cook. Rhythm ‘n’ blues, hypnotic groove, lyrical melodic flow and interruption, lush harmonic extensions contrasted with sparse geometric furnishings and colorings. Slidey, snake-like Wes Montgomery guitar stylings, structural blocks and themes, improvisational flights, the bittersweet longing of the plucked string. The smoothest and roughest textures that the voice can make. Dizzy heights. Damned depths. Tempting tones. Paradox. Nu-Vintage and retro-newness and sepia-toned novelty and yin/yang alchemy. Fatal, badass women. Dapper dandies, broke hearts, beats and rag time romance. Universal but specific stories of love, loss and renewal that I’m unafraid to tell. It’s Nu Jazz, baby!
How long to compose a song and do you write the melody first or lyrics?
Each song has a personality all its own and behaves differently. Mostly, the music comes first, often from noodling around on the guitar or piano, and a hook emerges. But then there are the 4 a.m. song lyrics that wake me up and just demand that I sit down and build something around them. It’s not that I don’t want to take credit for my songs – I absolutely do – but very often the experience is that something else is using me as a vessel. My job is to get out of the way until it’s done. Many composers and songwriters would say something similar. One thing for sure is I never get writer’s block!
What funky time signatures or rhythms or unique effects do you like to play around with?
I love stabs, stops, starts, hesitations. Passing solos around the group, modulating each time. Exchanging solo breaks with my guitarist – doing an 8-bar, 4-bar, 2-bar, 1-bar thing. (Santana, Spyro Gyra).
I’m very much the queen of a well-placed 6/4 among the 4/4. I like using the term ‘pivot’ as a pre-chorus device – which Rachelle Ferrell does a lot in her writing. I have a song called “Fools” and on the end, I’ve placed 8 bars of a 5/4 groove which ends abruptly. It makes a good statement which fits in with the “don’t suffer fools” theme and is a great basis for the band to improvise over. I can it extend it indefinitely.
“Sweet Little So-n-So”- what went into that song?
A torch song, very thoughtful – how do you translate your feelings into words and notes? Ha ha! I was feeling in a rodeo-ish, Country Western sort of lyrical space – although the chord progressions are classic lounge jazz. It’s just a cheeky love (sex) song with a lazy feeling that hopefully gets people into a mellow space.
I’m inspired by songwriters of the Cole Porter era who managed to stretch out the sentences and tantalize listeners with well-chosen repetition and obvious rhymes that you sort of know are coming and that lead you on that way. I’m not really as romantic as this song suggests;- it’s a device. There has to be a bit of distance between the raw feelings and what you present to an audience.
Talk about your upcoming show in London’s Green Note- what do you like about that club?
I perform every four months or so at The Green Note, usually in a duo version of my band (myself and a drummer) since the basement speakeasy in which we play is so tiny. It has a very boutique, after-hours intimate feeling to it – only 25-person capacity. I like this feeling of being in my living room, plus it’s relatively easy to sell out the space. It looks and feels like something from the 1920s and the toilets are wallpapered with vintage sheet music. The Green Note is kind of a folk joke on the Blue Note and in the past was more of a folk club. Now it’s folk, roots, world, blues and jazz in the basement. It’s run by two women and won a Time Out magazine “London’s favorite music venue” award in 2015. So yes, a lovely spot to play. I’m not sure what we’ll play yet. We’ve been showcasing a lot of new tunes recently, so it might be time to go to the back catalogues.
Where would you most love to play in the UK that you have not yet?
Any of the big regional jazz festivals – Cork, Edinburgh, Manchester, Glasgow. Anywhere where I get to spend a weekend in the countryside. Glastonbury, obviously! I don’t get out of London much currently. Ireland and Scotland if possible as I want to travel there anyway.
Where have you toured?
I have played at Derry Jazz Festival (Northern Ireland) and Donaueschingen Jazz Festival in Lake Konstanz.
Have you performed in the US?
No – not yet!
“Susan Says” – so original, and we can all relate. Talk about writing to our deepest feelings.
Thank you! “Susan Says” was an important moment for me as I tried again to place myself in something that sounded like jazz, by writing a fun song, based on a conversation with UK jazz singer and friend Sue McCreeth. The first time I performed that in public, I did all the solo breaks just with the voice as the instrument. It’s a vehicle for that. Someone at one of my gigs once commented that it was great to have someone (me in this this case) give vent to feelings that everyone is going through but not everyone can easily express. This seems to be my role and I only do it onstage.
When I perform, I can speak of crushing loss and vulnerability that I’d never do in conversation. Music should make you feel something or allow you to feel something – let some tears fall, experience a moment of healing or of courage and inspiration. That’s my job as a healer. My medium is music, but it might just as well be something else. Everyone, everywhere at any given moment is – no matter how they appear – dealing with loss, fear and hope, grief and anger. It’s part of being human and living under the conditions that we do.
Current CD? Favorite track?
My current CD is “Dangerous Loving.” I like every track on it and I have some great guests on flute, trumpet, flugelhorn, Latin percussion and cello.
“Ripped and Torn” is my favorite. When I do that live now, I’ve built in much more improv. My other favorite is “Simply,” a very laid-back love song. On the recording I took the risk to go for some very long and very high notes, and there’s some nice interplay between myself on classical guitar and my guitarist on electric. He laid down his part first, with a very loose, improvised feel. I put my more structured, composed bits on later and yet it sounds like the same guitarist. The lyrics are “effortlessly and simple, in harmony with me’’ – and that just about says it all!
Plans to grow your music in 2018?
Now that I play a lot of guitar in the live set I’ll be working an extra keyboard player into the band. Hoping to continue duo work with my drummer and second guitarist. Applications are underway for regional jazz festivals and funding.
I have about three albums sitting in the pipeline, semi-recorded. I could do with some funding so I can finish them – but the vogue right now is for well-produced video, so I’m thinking of prioritizing that.
Popular opinion says that CD as a format is over, but I disagree. I think people still appreciate an actual object, something personal and collectable with good artwork that you can hold in your hand or give as a gift. So I’ll keep making CDs.
I love both recording and gigging so the ideal lifestyle is a combination of both. I’d like to play abroad and my direction is probably Japan, Southeast Asia and of course Europe. I traveled in Japan in a non-musical capacity and I’d like to get back there in the future. So far I am independent but as time goes on I’d like more of an industry infrastructure around me, as it’s certainly hard work doing it all myself…
New collaborations you would like to launch?
It’s always been my dream to have my own jazz club – “Faye’s” – a bit like Ronnie’s or Yoshi’s, a place that feels like my home where I run nights, lead the band and invite other guests onstage. That kind of set-up is demanding but I would love it! I enjoy doing instrumental session work and accompaniment. I collaborate with an all-female collective in Manchester which puts on its own club nights. I can see that developing on an international scale in 2018.
Thank you for interviewing me Debbie! This was fun!
2018 starts with a bang! If you are in London, the Faye Patton Quartet is playing at Toulouse Lautrec on Jan 20th (also http://tlvenue/live/patton). Then I’ll be playing with my drummer Ian Newton-Grant (http://protectionracket.com/artists/item/ian-newtongrant) at London’s Green Note on Feb 11th.
I am featured in a new jazz anthology “Giving Birth To Sound” released by the dedicated Cologne-based jazz publisher Buddy’s Knife. My current album “Dangerous Loving” is available online at Bandcamp and CDbaby, and via the UK’s best indie jazz distributor, JAZZCDs.
For more information, visit https://fayepatton.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
(c) Debbie Burke 2017