A Rare Bird of a Voice: Joy Ellis

Joy Ellis 1

A sax man with a mission is the subject under scrutiny in Joy Ellis’s “The Jazzman” from her CD “Life on Land.” Ellis attacks the song with intensity and authenticity. It is a contemporary tale of the struggles of making one’s way as a jazz artist. The very meta sax solo is assertive, imaginative and swells with soul.

“Here in the Quiet” is the perfect display of Ellis’s expressive, tuneful voice; a sound which is so unique that it makes comparison to other vocalists an arduous task. The song has her coaxing the most gorgeous shades of color from the piano.

The purity of a walking bass and sparse, bluesy guitar is the perfect backdrop for Ellis’s vocals and floralescent piano in “Veteran.” Composed with a rhythm that breaks open into a quiet space, the song leaves room for lyrics that Ellis presents with melancholy, as it’s about the harsh realities in the life of a has-been. 

How would you describe your style? 

I suppose a mix of jazz, classical, groove and singer-songwriter.

What attracted you to the piano and performing as a vocalist? 

I’ve been playing the piano since I was nine years old and always loved the instrument. I’m a massive fan of Debussy and his use of harmony and chords.

I got into jazz music because one of my first gigs was in a local pub when I lived in Suffolk. Someone volunteered me as a jazz pianist and singer because I sang a bit of Norah Jones (I knew nothing about jazz at this point) and oddly enough I got the gig…it was pretty nerve-wracking at the time! The more I delved into the music, the more I wanted to know.

Highlights of your music education? 

My time at Middlesex University in London was fantastic – it was pretty much everything I had hoped for in a university experience. My year group was a mix of ages and nationalities; so many interesting personalities, all with a passion for jazz. The tutors were open to a whole spectrum of jazz-influenced music which sparked a great deal of creativity and freedom.

What do you like to write about? 

I feel very much a novice in this area. Lyrics are so hard! At the moment I’ve been writing quite generally about my observations and experiences of living in London. I find it very inspiring.

Do you consider yourself a storyteller?  

I love to read and I think this is helpful when you’re thinking about the poetry of language in a song. I’d love to be more of a storyteller actually, through both words and music.

Essentially, I’d really like to write beautiful songs and compositions that move people in a thought-provoking and uplifting way.

What does the title “Life on Land” refer to? 

Honestly, it was a joke by a friend of mine. When I finished my master’s I was totally burnt out and just wanted to play music and travel. My boyfriend (now husband) and I put together a jazz quartet and managed to do a few contracts out at sea. When I moved back to London and started thinking further about creative projects someone ironically suggested “Life On Land” as an  album title as opposed to “Life At Sea” so I guess it stuck.

Who inspired “The Jazzman”? 

“The Jazzman” was inspired by an article I read while researching for a presentation at the 14th Darmstadt JazzForum in Germany in 2015. We were exploring the dynamic of women and the jazz jam.

The article was written in the 1950s and intricately describes the artistry, camaraderie and warfare that occurred among musicians at after-hours jams that spearheaded the birth of the bebop movement. The article was so detailed and quite revealing, particularly in the description of the jam as a battleground. I thought it would be an interesting topic for a song.

What is this jazzman’s struggle? 

I think the music is the struggle – trying to make it the best you possibly can. Also, the jam session environment is quite emotionally charged and can sometimes seem intrinsically entwined with a musician’s value as a person. The player can be lifted up or thrown down.

What is the music scene like where you live? 

The London cultural scene is so vibrant and healthy right now. There is such a wealth of new music and art. It’s really enriching, and you can’t hope to take it all in! I love being here at this point in my life although it can get pretty hectic sometimes.

The community arts scene and all those murals: how did these inspire your compositions? 

A group called the Turnpike Art Group created some beautiful installations in my local neighborhood of Haringey in North London. They brighten up the area and combine the urban and natural in a fascinating way.

We also have foxes living at the bottom of our garden, so when I saw them putting up a ceramic piece portraying a couple of foxes I thought it would make an intriguing backdrop to the photos for my website and album.

My friend Lena Feindt designed the album artwork and, springing off the original idea, she also took photographs of my neighborhood and layered them together to create a collage. This has a lot of personal meaning to me and I love the way the fox is looking up hungrily at the little robin – it’s tough out there sometimes!

Joy Ellis fox mural

Where would you like to perform that you have not yet? 

I’ve sung at Ronnie Scott’s in London with the vocal group LVP and I would love to play there in my own right with my own music.

I’d also love to play at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam just because it’s a cool venue and I love Holland. It would be great to tour internationally to Japan or the States but I’m probably getting a little ahead of myself right now.

Most memorable tour and why? 

My debut UK album tour last year was pretty special as it went even better than I’d hoped it would.

However, probably the most memorable tour would be when I spent two months in Malaysia with my husband in 2012. During that time the seed of a Brazilian project we’d been working on finally came to life. We played in some lovely, intimate venues including No Black Tie in Kuala Lumpur and Geographer in Melaka, and made so many lovely friends. I love the vibe and the culture and the street food!

Your band – what are their strengths? 

It’s great working with my husband Adam as we live in the same house and practice and play together a lot. Someone once described us as having some kind of “Jedi-mind shit going on.” Not sure if that’s true or not, but I hope so!

The band line-up for live gigs often changes and I’ve been lucky to work with some fantastic musicians on the UK jazz scene. It’s fun to hear how different players approach my music.

What overall sound do you hope to achieve? 

I want my music to be interesting and creative as well as accessible. I like to write music for a variety of instruments and ensembles from a predominantly jazz aesthetic.

What are the challenges in being a musician today? 

Making a living! 

Where are most of the gigs – small clubs, festivals, concerts…? 

In London the big jazz gigs are the Royal Festival Hall and the Barbican, particularly during the London Jazz Festival in November. For small gigs; Ronnie Scott’s, Pizza Express, Dean Street, The 606, The Vortex. Slightly off the Beaten Track; events at Mau Mau Bar promoted by Jazz:Refreshed, Total Refreshment Centre, Jazz in the Round at The Cockpit Theatre and Good Evening presented by Tom Sankey. There’s a lot going on at the moment which is really great.

Do you think jazz can bring people of different ideologies together?

Absolutely! What’s also interesting is the way young people experience music. In the past, it was more difficult for people to be as eclectic in their tastes; for example, there would be mods and rockers and they would have a dress code and identity associated with the particular music they listened to.

Nowadays, young people access music via Spotify and other streaming services and they’re checking out all sorts of music from Western classical to West African to jazz to electronica and probably more underground, less commercial artists. I hope this easy access to a greater diversity of genres can increase people’s tolerance of new ideas and points of view.

Talk about the cool animation for the “From Dusk Till Dawn” video? 

I was checking out the music of a wonderful saxophonist I met in Germany online and saw she’d worked with an animator called Carlo-Roman Picaso on a couple of her music videos. I just loved his style reminiscent of Saul Bass who designed the credits for movies such as Anatomy of a Murder (the score of which was incidentally written by Duke Ellington). I thought it would really fit “From Dusk Till Dawn” as it’s a bit of a quirky song, and I think Carlo’s animation really told the story in a unique, fun way.

How do you take care of your voice, hands and fingers? 

I’m so bad with my voice – I’m always telling my students to warm up and I often don’t! With the piano I’m much more careful and try to play in a relaxed way. One of my mentors suggested the book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and I found the morning pages so helpful to mentally focus and have balance. Sometimes this is the hardest thing.

What would you most like to develop or improve? 

I’m always striving to be a better piano player and improviser. This is definitely my biggest work in progress. More and more, I’d like to delve into composition. Writing new music is so exciting! To have nothing and then create something is very cool.

Talk about how you choose between piano and electronic keyboard.

The touch or action is the main difference in terms of the playing experience. Obviously, the sounds are vastly different and that’s what you want depending on the composition.

I love the sound of the Rhodes which I used on a couple of tracks on my new album. I had a friend who used to play Moog. This is one instrument I would love to be able to get to grips with.

Plans for this year? 

By the end of the year I’d like to have recorded a second album as a jazz quartet, as well as have written music for a larger ensemble for my third project.

We have just begun recording our Brazilian project “Samba Azul” this month, which I’m very excited about.

Basically I’d like to do lots more composing and playing this year.

For more information, visit www.joyellismusic.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Joy Ellis.
© Debbie Burke 2018

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