On his self-released sophomore recording, Right Around the Corner, vocalist John Minnock interprets jazz, blues and cabaret tunes from the perspective of a proud gay man, culling material that he frequently performs at his shows in New York. His original compositions reflect his experiences, as he relates tales of his own romantic relationships and celebrates New York nightlife. But he also brings a great deal of pathos to standards, including a haunting read of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark.”
The song begins with just Minnock and saxophonist Dave Liebman engaging in a stirring duet, Lieb’s stark tenor intro setting the mood. Minnock’s emotional vibrato calls up the deep longing of the Johnny Mercer lyric, expressed all the more nakedly with just Liebman’s breathy romantic accompaniment. At about the midway point, the duo is joined by pianist Enrique Hanenine, whose crystalline playing adds another layer of depth to the emotional palette.
JAZZIZ recently spoke to Minnock about the making of his new album and the intertwined legacies of cabaret music and jazz. During the conversation, we also talked about what it was like to interpret the Great American Songbook from a queer perspective, as well as how LGBTQ issues are contextualized through jazz performance. Below is an excerpt of the conversation that has been edited for length and clarity.
Your new album explores the Great American Songbook from an overlooked vantage point in jazz, that of an openly gay man. How did the idea for the project come about, and why did you choose to make a jazz album as opposed to a cabaret album?
This has been somewhat evolutionary. I’ve been singing for 10 to 12 years professionally, starting in Boston. But then I moved to The Metropolitan Room in New York. I was a cabaret performer who did more of a jazz/funk/R&B show. But over time, for whatever reason, I started going the jazz route. I recorded a cabaret album a few years ago that was really just material from my live show. As I started going in the jazz direction, I decided that my next album should have more of me and my ideas on it. And what I found was, as an openly gay person, the traditional material didn’t represent me or the LGBTQ community. And the more open I became about it, the more I forced myself into and wrote my own music, the more the project started going in that direction. I sing what I know.
What brought about that initial pivot toward jazz?
I didn’t even think of it until it started to happen, but jazz has a great deal of flexibility in it. Once, while arranging a song, I said to my pianist, Enrique, “Wait, can I do this to this song? He said, “You can do anything you want — it’s jazz!” There was flexibility to the point that, if there was something I wanted to express, I could make the song express it.
Can you provide us with a particular song or lyric that you perform whose meaning changed once you began to view it from this new perspective?
There’s one that’s not on my album that I do in my cabaret show. It’s a B.B. King song, “Never Make Your Move Too Soon.” It’s written for B.B. King and was also taken from moments in his life. The lyrics by are by Will Jennings, who went on to be a super huge pop lyricist. The song has aspects of love, lies and betrayal while working the blues circuit. But a lot of the concepts in it —the heartbreak and loneliness, especially — almost directly apply to the gay community. So I changed some of the words and I call it “Love, Lies and Betrayal. in Hell’s Kitchen” I tweak some of the lyrics, but the concepts wind up being exactly the same.
How about an example from the album itself?
“You Don’t Know What Love Is,” the Billie Holiday tune. My interpretation comes from the depths of despair. My take on it is that it’s someone who is in a group that is somewhat ostracized — whether it was someone who is African American, as was the case for Billie Holiday, or someone in the gay community, as is the case for me. In my interpretation, it’s someone who tried a romance to elevate their life. But the romance failed, so not only do they deal with failed romance, but they have to do so as a member of a group that’s discriminated against. I think of it almost as double despair.
Despair has always been a theme in jazz, and especially blues. Was it something you identified even in your earliest interactions with the music?
I think so, yes. I mean, I remember detecting some sense of despair from all of my favorite jazz vocalists, like Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams and Mel Tormé. But there was despair even in instrumental jazz. I could hear despair, struggle, anger, difficulty. But there was just that perspective from the gay community that I wasn’t hearing. I mean, in the gay community, it’s possible that your family will reject you, that your religion will reject you, that you’ll be embarrassed to be who you really are. Those issues just weren’t being addressed in jazz. I try to channel that into the music I do; everyone’s experience has despair and struggles and challenges, but there are particulars about the gay community that I try to express.
How did you link up with Dave Liebman for the new disc?
When we were working on this current album, we knew we wanted to include the song “New York, New York.” Not the Kander and Ebb version, but one written by a pop-folk artist who’s openly gay named Jay Brannan. It’s got a little snarkiness, it’s a little acerbic, it’s a little bitter. My aunt Joan, who’s 90 years old, says it’s her favorite song because it’s what my personality is like. (laughs)
As we evolved this song and tried to fit it into a jazz context, it started to go in an avant-garde direction. We were very excited about where it was going. I went to Lydia [Liebman], who does my PR, and said we needed a saxophonist who could evoke that John Coltrane sound and feeling on the track. I was going to ask her for a reference for a saxophone player, and she just blurted out, “Then you have to use Dave Liebman!”
What was it like to work with a musician who used to rub shoulders with Miles Davis? How involved was he in the arranging?
Dave Liebman is the greatest guy. The song “New York, New York” was already arranged and worked out. His role in that was contributing to the kind of sound. And I mentioned to him that I wanted a kind of a call-and-response thing going on, because I love to hear musicians — especially great musicians like Dave Liebman — respond to what I just did. That back and forth was a thrill.
The thing that was super exciting to me was that the “downtown” sound started to represent the sound of the city that you can hear at any time day or night in Manhattan, which is perfect for the song being called “New York, New York.” It represents everything that New Yorker’s love complaining about and being bitter about: the noise, the crowdedness. (laughs) But I take the song a bit further, which is that the song is about a person who grew up in a country area but lives in New York because that’s where he feels comfortable about his sexuality. It’s a person who would not choose to live in a big city, but has to because of his sexual orientation.
Dave arranged Skylark for the album during the session. We knew we wanted a duet with saxophone and voice, and he arranged the rest.
How has your cabaret audience responded to your jazz material?
Well, when it comes to the jazz aspect of things, there’s risk involved. It’s not traditional cabaret material. But one thing that’s been thrilling is that this material has really been resonating with New Yorkers, and a lot of the songs seem to be going over in a cabaret room. Because the idea behind both genres is the same: You have to have a lyric, develop a story, have a character. At the same time, we’re moving further and feather in jazz, while maintaining what will work for an audience in a cabaret setting. Would they go for this? And the answer is yes, they will.
John Minnock will be appearing with Dave Liebman September 20 at 54 Below in New York City. The first Saturday in December, he will be headlining Don’t Tell Mama for a holiday show. He’s currently working on a new album. For more information, visit his website.