A Different Voice
Giacomo Gates’ rendering of a rare jazz form is pitch perfect.
Thursday, July 21, 2005
Larry Vuckovich, the dean of Northern California bebop pianists, vividly recalls the first time he played with Giacomo Gates.
A master of the arcane art of vocalese, the jazz vocal style that involves setting lyrics to famous instrumental solos, Gates was in Long Beach, Calif., last January for the International Association of Jazz Educators annual conference, an event that attracts musicians from around the world.
Vuckovich was playing by himself in a side room when Gates walked in and asked if he could sit in.
“As soon as he started singing, I felt that authentic East Coast feel, the spirit of Eddie Jefferson and Jon Hendricks,” says Vuckovich, who spent almost a decade touring with Hendricks, the legendary vocalese pioneer. “Gates and I had a nice jam...he’s the real thing.”
Over the past decade, Gates has turned numerous musicians and jazz fans into true believers. He concludes a series of Northern California gigs on Saturday at the Jazz & Blues Company, accompanied by Vuckovich and veteran bassist Buca Necak.
Though his music career got off to a late start, Gates has been making up for lost time, establishing himself as a worthy peer of the world’s finest male jazz singers. Last month, for instance, he performed in Europe as part of Kurt Elling’s “Four Brothers” showcase, joining his far better known colleagues Kevin Mahogany and Mark Murphy. He’s recorded three superb albums, most recently Centerpiece (Origin), a hard-swinging session focusing on vocalese classics such as Hendricks’ soulful setting for Harry “Sweets” Edison’s “Centerpiece” and Eddie Jefferson’s raucous “I Got the Blues,” inspired by a James Moody solo on “Lester Leaps In.”
“I always loved this music,” Gates says from his home in Bridgeport, Conn. “I was listening to Lambert, Hendricks and Ross in my teens. I was aware of Babs Gonzales, King Pleasure and Eddie Jefferson. I didn’t think of it as something that’s obscure or impossible. For me, it was music that was fun.”
Born and raised in Bridgeport, Gates (his first name is pronounced jock-o-mo) grew up listening to jazz, but never considered music as a vocation. After working construction gigs in the early 1970s, he set off for Alaska at age 24, where he spent most of the next two decades. He never lost his love of jazz, particularly for the odd menagerie of artists who invented and popularized vocalese, characters like the folk poet hipster Hendricks, the self-crowned King Pleasure.
In the mid-1980s, he started thinking about developing his vocal talent, but it was an encounter with the late Bay Area-based jazz writer Grover Sales, who was in Fairbanks to cover a jazz festival, that really stoked his ambition. After hearing Gates perform in a vocal class, Sales, the Monterey Jazz Festival’s original publicist, was impressed enough to offer some career advice.
The two men developed a friendship, and Sales eventually convinced manager and producer Helen Keane, who worked closely with pianist Bill Evans and trumpeter Art Farmer, to give the singer a chance. She ended up producing his 1995 debut Blue Skies (DMP). Gates brought pianist Harold Danko to the session, and Keane recruited veteran saxophonist Jerome Richardson and the redoubtable rhythm section partners bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Akira Tana. The album received strong reviews and launched his unlikely career, defying friends’ warnings.
“People said, ‘You can’t do that. You’re established in Fairbanks, you’re working out of a union hall. You’ve got a condominium and a car that’s paid for. You can’t just up and split,’” Gates says. “I thought, ‘Why not? This is no dress rehearsal. This is the real deal. Time’s a wasting.’”
GATES PERFORMS AT 7:30PM on SATURDAY, JULY 23, AT THE JAZZ AND BLUES COMPANY, the EASTWOOD BUILDING, SAN CARLOS And 5TH STREET, CARMEL. $45. 624-6432 OR WWW.THEJAZZANDBLUESCOMPANY.COM.