PARIS PT. 1: LEEE JOHN AT THE NEW MORNING
I hadn't set foot in Paris in over thirty years, I always remembered how much I enjoyed being in the city. Spurred on by the desire to meet some of the ever-growing number of French customers we have at Soul Music.com, I had arranged with Frederic Adrian - who hosts a Yahoo message board for dedicated French soul music lovers - to have a little get-together on Friday, October 20.
After arriving in the UK the week before, I had reached out to my longtime friend Leee John ( known to most folks as the leader of Imagination, the pop/soul/dance unit that achieved tremendous international popularity in the '80s) only to discover that he would be performing on October 19 at The New Morning, one of the most prestigious jazz clubs in Paris so I knew I couldn't miss it!
I had known Leee since some years before Imagination was created: while still in school, he and his friend Russell had perusaded me to interview them for my column in the UK magazine "Blues & Soul" for their first-ever record! Over the years, we've stayed in touch on a consistent basis, drawn by our mutual love for soul music: I can vividly recall listening to all manner of tunes at Leee's house during different visits to the UK from Diana Ross' "Pieces Of Ice" (a personal favorite) to The Jones Girls' "You're Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else"! Late last year, Leee had informed me that he had made a jazz record in France. It was something of a departure: logically, people in the music biz had expected that a first solo record from the multi-talented singer/songwriter and producer would be an R&B/soul album. But given his longtime love for jazz, Leee - always known for being 'bold' in career choices he's made - chose a different path, opting for reinterpreting classics such as Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" (an emotional tour-de-force for any singer), "Embraceable You" and "Someone To Watch Over Me" and recording new original material such as "Thin Line," "Jazzamatazz" and "Flamingo Blue." Once I heard the album, I had been suitably impressed but not entirely surprised: Leee's pure love for singing had always been evident to me from our early conversations about music and artists of note that we both loved.
After a little delay at Charles de Gaulle airport while I changed Euros so I could board the train to Gare Du Nord, I finally arrived in the city to be greeted by Frederic. Struggling a little with a suitcase with a broken handle (not fun!), we finally made it to The New Morning - a venue which has hosted many of the great names in jazz - just in time for Leee's show; both Frederic and I agreed that the brisk walk to the venue had been more than worthwhile...
At The New Morning, accompanied by a more-than-able quartet, Leee John delivered a show worthy of the surroundings bringing spontaneity, subtlety, soul and energy to the material from "Feel My Soul" and throwing in some extra material that delighted the audience. A swing tune, the original "Flamingo Blue" was the perfect set opener followed in short order by two more upbeat John originals, "U Never Know" and "Sensuality." It could be tough performing original tunes when an audience isn't completely familiar with the material: thanks to several trips to France where the album was recorded, the enthusiastic response from the packed house suggested that Leee's CD has had an impact for each song was greeted with a sense of recognition. Of course, it doesn't hurt when standards such as "Embraceable You" are thrown into the mix and when Leee opted to include a jazzy version of the Imagination classic "Body Talk," the audience was enraptured. Undoubtedly, highlights from the first half of the show were a poignant, intimate version of "Small World" (which I had known via Nancy Wilson but is in fact a Stephen Sondheim-penned tune from the Broadway musical "Gypsy") and Leee's French language version of "Now Is The Time (C'est Le Moment)," a key track on "Feel My Soul".
Part two of the show included more material from the CD which has been well-received in France in particular, garnering some critical acclaim in the UK where folks are still apparently 'adjusting' to Leee's choice to sing jazz: whenever an artist makes changes in musical direction, it sometimes takes a while for the music industry to 'catch up'! Starting the second half of his stellar performance at The New Morning, Leee chose "Strange Fruit," the stark and emotionally-riveting Billie Holiday song referencing the inhumane and abhorent activities associated with America's deep South as recently as fifty years ago. It's a tough song to perform: I can recall seeing the late Nina Simone offer a chilling rendition during a Dutch television taping in 1971, leaving the audience spellbound and silent. Fortunately, Leee chose to deliver the song with appropriate nuance and emotion.
Lady Day's songbook was revisited with a spirited reading of "God Bless The Child" but without a doubt, the highlights from the second segment of the show were a groove-flavored version of another Imagination classic, "Just An Illusion," the original "Feel My Spirit" (from "Feel My Soul") and an audience participation tune, "The Truth" which Leee has yet to record. Of course, knowing Leee personally for as long as I have, I was rooting for him; that said, an audience's response says it all and this Parisian club's patrons were begging for more! My colleague Frederic Adrian, a die-hard soul music connoisseur, expressed his immediate admiration for Leee's performance, surprised at the comfort level Leee felt with material with which he has not generally been associated through his two-plus decades in the music industry.
Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed watching an artist who I've known literally since his teens giving himself full permission to express his genuine passion for jazz-flavored material. Leee delivered the songs with the innate sense of someone who appreciates lyrics, understands the art of interpretation and is unafraid to express himself with a real passion for music. Big props too to the musicians who accompanied him, providing the perfect cushion for an evening of truly good vibes.
After the show, congrats were in order and I headed off with Leee and co. for some Indian/Pakistani food... Part 2 of my adventures in Paris to follow tomorrow!