VINCE JONES IS ON THE PHONE because in the off-road corner of southern New South Wales he lives on, the Internet is too flaky to attempt a Zoom call. He sounds a little disappointed but I’ve often wondered whether Jones doesn’t mind this relative isolation at all.
The man who sang Big City on his 7th album, Trustworthy Little Sweethearts, with lines like “All I want are the bright lights/Big cities for me/Night time is the right time/Shock town is my town”, may have done some growing up in Sydney, may have made his reputation at inner city clubs and bars around Australia, but his heart and his home have been in the country for a couple of decades now.
“I really like the quiet of a living in the country existence. At the same time I quite enjoy getting to the city, just not all the time,” says the quiet voiced, now white-bearded eminence of Australian jazz. “Here I can practice and sing my lungs out and there’s no one here to hassle me.”
Yes, he’s still singing. Maybe not playing as much horn as he once did, but the voice, the phrasing, the velvety, elegantly human delivery that’s been his signature since his first album in 1981, remains vivid. And certainly remains active.
(That voice, like his memory, probably helped by the fact he was never much of a drinker or drug user – “I’m a bit of a drug virgin” – and was an early fighter for the removal of tobacco, and tobacco sponsorship, from venues and festivals.)
In a break from his usual sets of original material and reimagined standards, Jones is back on the road soon with one of his most popular sidelines, exploring the songs of Van Morrison’s two career-resetting albums of the late '60s, Astral Weeks and Moondance.
While it may look unusual, there’s a lot about this program that makes sense. Jones, as a singer, as a bandleader and recording artist, is probably one of the most influential figures in contemporary Australian music for the way he provided a bridge to jazz for many a pop, soul and rock fan, and vice versa, and at the same time offered a kind of finishing school for young jazz players who moved through his many bands over the years before establishing vibrant careers of their own.
Showing the links between genres and the possibilities of songwriting is doing God’s work, something Astral Weeks in particular, did, becoming a record which had people who’d insist they don’t listen to jazz, listening to jazz playing.
“I’ve loved Astral Weeks since I was a young man. Since I was a young boy actually: I bought that album when I was 17,” says Jones, remembering how Michael Kenny, central figure in the Australian fusion band, Crossfire and an early mentor for the trumpet-playing singer, took him to see visiting American band, The Modern Jazz Quartet, in which drummer Connie Kay and bass player Richard Davis were playing.
As further investigations revealed that both men had been in the jazz-heavy band Morrison assembled in New York for 1968’s Astral Weeks, almost universally regarded now as one of the great albums of modern music, a lot of things fell into place.
“I think Van’s love of that era of jazz brought that album into being,” says Jones. “If you talk to anybody who has any knowledge of music they will tell you that Richard Davis made that album. And he really liked Van. He said ‘you’re a poet huh? Let’s make this work’.”
Naturally, the Morrison songs aren’t done as they were on the album. That’s never been Jones’ way with anything he’s approached. Not even his own songs. “I can’t sing the same way every night,” he’ll tell you. “I can’t do it: it is just not my personality.”
His approach to reaching in and interpreting a song has been a major factor for me certainly – and I know I’m not alone among writers and critics – in understanding how to listen and what to look for in music.
“It’s the licence of a jazz musician to interpret, to investigate the chords, investigate the melody, where the melody fits. It’s been a choice of mine to repackage a song that I really like. I do this version of I Didn’t Know What Time It Was, which was made famous by Sinatra, and we do it in such a way – and we’ve all talked about it – whatever happens, happens. We’ll follow you or you follow me, so there’s an open door to it.
“Jazz musicians, we teach ourselves to not get locked in or autopilot a song. Jazz is about is being open to anything that comes into your head and finds its way out. You could screw it up, but you’ve got to take that chance.”
Is certainly one lesson, along with always dressing the part, from The Vince Jones Finishing School For Young Musicians, established in the early ‘80s and living on in his current ensemble, The Astral Orchestra.
“The formula was at least three elders and two young players, and they would be groomed and slowly learnt with these good players,” says Jones of the many bands he’s assembled in the past 40 years. “Putting them with Doug De Vries and Gary Costello, Allan Browne, Andrew Gander, Lloyd Swanton, and guys like this, I knew they would rocket ahead fairly quickly.
“In a year they would be world-class, and people like Barney McAll, away they went to Europe and America.”
If his voice and interpretative skill are what have marked his territory, and his shepherding of several generations of musicians what forms part of his legacy, an underrated, or not sufficiently talked about aspect of Vince Jones’ career is his songwriting.
On every album since his 1981 debut, Watch What Happens (where a couple of originals sat alongside tracks by Roland Kirk and Cole Porter, and others popularised by Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra), up to more recent albums written with pianist Matt McMahon, Jones’ has revealed a talent for melody, for tenderness, and sometimes for pointed lyrics in songs that reflected his interest in folk and soul and pop alongside jazz.
I have argued for a couple of decades that his song, Jettison, should sit in the collection of great Australian songs and modern standards for its ability to capture ache and yearning in a graceful, timeless setting. Even the modest Jones can’t argue.
“Paul Grabowsky was the producer of that album [1987’s It All Ends Up In Tears] and he remodelled it a little with the horns et cetera but it was dying to be born. It had to come out at that time,” Jones remembers. “I love it, I still play it: it’s not predictable, it’s interesting. I think it should be in a [list] of Australia’s well written songs, yeah.”
Though of course, like singing and performing, songwriting is far from over for Jones, with a new original album hopefully out next year, written with his long-term collaborator, McMahon.
“It’s not like a plan that is being set out for me to do; I just can’t stop. My family, my dad was a musician, mum was a musician, my sister and brother are musicians. And I really enjoy writing and I only sing words that I enjoy singing.”
So while there may be shorter tours, and no more of those visits to Europe and the USA where he built a solid following (even for this qualified pilot who used to fly himself around Australia, airports have lost their appeal), his long career sails on.
“The mantra was it’s really all about the music. It was never about fame and fortune; it was about playing with really good players and enjoying performing and watching the music of other people,” Jones says. “That’s pretty much what it’s always been about. For me the prize was playing music and writing songs.”
And one or two good suits.
“Oh yeah,” he says with wry chuckle. “I’d get three suits every two years from that shop in Sydney, Skin Deep. ‘Three suits for two grand, Vince, they’re yours.’ It was great.”
Vince Jones & The Astral Orchestra play The Concourse Concert Hall, Chatswood, on November 19.