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Talking Jazz with Emilie Conway

Irish jazz singer and composer / lyricist Emilie Conway with pianist Darragh Hennessy were invited to perform at the American Writers Museum, Chicago, The Village Trip, a new Greenwich Village festival, the American Irish Historical Society, in May to mark the centenary of writer Maeve Brennan, culminating in a performance in Greenwich Village's legendary Cornelia Street Cafe. On September 12 the Emilie Conway Quartet perform "You Won't Forget Me" Words & Music Celebrating Maeve Brennan with readings by Cathy Belton at the National Concert Hall.

Here Emilie records her impressions of the American trip ......

The American Writers Museum - Chicago

Coming up out of the Blue Line subway into the bright sunlight of Washington St the buildings of downtown Chicago continue their ascent far above our heads piercing the deep heat of the clear blue sky  Amazed, we look up and I gasp as the heavy heat instantly envelopes us and takes my breath away.

Sky scrapers, the city’s sunflowers, with windows for petals, catch, reflect, refract, flash, frizzle the sun light, as disco light dazzling, shivering, jumping from silver steel face to charcoal shadows and back out again dizzy and dispersed - especially if you watch it from a moving El train.  But we were on the ground, excited as that light, walking the blinding white footpath north, past the Goodman Theatre where I’d seen Miller's last play, Finishing the Picture, past the Wrigley Building, the Chicago Tribune, John Hancock Tower, interrupted by a Tibetan monk trying to sell me peace, and serenaded by a sax player playing Nigel Mooney blues, past Ralph Lauren and the Cheesecake Factory, right to the top of North Michigan Avenue to our hotel, the Drake!

We were terribly lucky to be staying at the Drake - I knew that …and yet the charm of a king size hotel room shrank to nothing when I caught sight of that orange light of the setting sun on the sandstone building outside my window. 

I knew Lake Michigan was waiting, silent, deep and enthralling across Lake Shore Drive.  I knew with each second of the sinking sun, that silence would drop to deeper mysteries of blue until darkness turned it navy just before it would disappear, horizonless, into the night sky.… so I slipped out, hurrying down the back stairs, (didn’t not have my elevator legs yet) - just as the complimentary cheese arrived! 

It didn’t disappoint but how to tell you …  joggers, walkers and couples, ephemeral and expected as waves along the shore, passed by.  Inconsequential, and yet comforting in their constancy as the hush from the lake grew more intense and magnetic: a vast body of mystery a repository of all knowing all feeling.

emilie conway awmEver anxious about the machinations of a gig, I went down early the next morning to see the new, not even a week old, American Writers Museum. With books on the ceiling, quotes and word games on the walls, the AWM was indeed literary heaven, and stocked with some good and salient souls. I've never before been apologised to for the absence of Beta mics but this is what I was greeted with on meeting Chris Burrow, Operations Director. His sophisticated sensitivity to what a singer might need with a  directness that reminded me of Spanner at JJ's, sealed my trust. And, no wonder, clued in and tuned in, his wife was a jazz singer. There and then, 9 in the morning, I sang Donal Óg as a sound check and Chris and the staff were very complimentary. Not undaunted by doing my interpretation of such famous sean nós song, I appreciated the vote of confidence.

The evening was a celebration of Irish American Women Writers, focusing specifically on Maeve Brennan.  To be invited to perform at such an event was an immense privilege.  On the week it opened its doors to the world, it was a remarkable statement of recognition and affirmation by the AWM of the significance of the relationship between Irish and American writing, of women’s writing and of Maeve Brennan whose life and work was the embodiment of these concerns.

We wove our music, from jazz to traditional Irish and spoken word, as Gaeilge, around a discussion of Maeve’s life and work led by Angela Bourke, Eilish Ni Dhuibhne and Alice Mc Dermott.   darragh aihs bwit was a delight to reunite with Chicago bassist, Dan Thatcher for the gig and all evening the atmosphere was one of excitement, warmth and engagement.

Before leaving I had the honour of meeting the esteemed Malcolm O’ Hagan, whose brainchild the AWM was. "All of 7 years ago", he said.  There was a grace, quiet dignity, and deep wisdom about this man.  All I could find to say was congratulations. 

After a morning spent at my other favourite place on earth, the Art Institute, and I think Darragh was suitably well impressed also. It was on to NYC......

The Village Trip at The Washington Square NYC

Two mimosas immediately appeared before us as we sat down at the lounge bar to meet with John Sorensen, artistic director and Liz Thomson, producer of the Village Trip.  John’s enthusiastic conversation shuttled back and forth between stories of the actors, writers and artists who had stayed at the hotel from its early days as the Hotel Earle 1907 to today — and back to us.   I began to feel like I might just fall down, through worlds irretrievably.  I excused myself, to get some air.

Only to lose the brief equilibrium as coming back in, I passed room 305 - famously, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan’s room!  And I realised:  this is Greenwich Village.  GV, .not unlike Oz …the tornado replaced by a ballet of shifting scenes: songs, sheafs of paper and spidery writing, scratched out, burned, a trumpet under a stool, Albee, Hemingway, Bill Evans, asleep in his suit, loud laughter from 305.  Heartbreak. Hendrix, cats on the make, Martha Graham rushing past with Pollock all over her.  I mean paint - paint, dancing, what’s the difference?  Maeve Brennan, beautiful, solitary, up before dawn, forgetting the word for broccoli and ordering another martini.  A cascade of seem of glimpse: a piano tuner, cigarette ends, words, paint, chance and fate.  The need, the imperative that finds form, the arabesque of passion to connect, to create, to reach, to touch, to love.  To rest.

Sweat, tears, loneliness, le geste, cliche and original, inspiration, evocations, exuberance and despair, lingering uncannily like cigarette smoke, or like the cold, or like the smell of the subway’s inexorable exhale of gasoline, steel, tar, bodies — the anonymity of the unrelenting crowd-face. Or, sudden and gone, like the shock of spray from the fountain in Washington Square.  Lost; flit-flirted and fled like fear, like something forbidden, fragile or shy.  

All that lingered and was lost, 1907-2017, commingled now in the sound of the singer and the jazz guitarist opposite us — me, Darragh, Liz and John in the bar in the Washington Square Hotel, talking about the show tomorrow and our favourite movies of all time…

The Village Trip was the inaugural event for a new Greenwich Village Festival celebrating the culture and history of GV.  The focus was Maeve Brennan, she had stayed at and written about the Washington Square Hotel in The New Yorker.  Leading up to the event, John, Darragh and I had worked together to select music from the period 1954, when June Christy released the album Something Cool, to the early 60s - music Maeve was likely to have heard. This was a vibrant time of coming about for GV.  Maeve was in her hay day at The New Yorker.  Bob Dylan had moved into the neighbourhood and was creating a stir.  A young Barbra Streisand performed her first set, which included "Sleepin’ Bee" at the Bon Soir club right next to the WSH. Bill Evans recorded "Waltz for Debby" in ’61 at the Vanguard just 10 days before LeFaro’s death  So alongside Kelly Letourneau’s readings, we preformed our arrangements of standards from this time, including “Something Cool,” “Out of this World,” Waltz for Debby," with my lyrics, followed by an instrumental Bill Evans set from Darragh and Marcos Varela:

I really enjoyed the experience of working with a director for a change. John had the whole thing through composed and choreographed beat by beat and it was fascinating to be part of his vision. It was a totally charmed day and evening, down to my shneaky shnooze before call-time: "dripping green" cool air coming in the window, and the sound of rain, falling all over Greenwich Village, and all over Darragh, returning from a piano lesson! Many of Maeve's family and friends came to the event whom it was an honour to meet. Big thanks are due to Judy & Marc Paul and their staff at WSH, who were simply wonderful to us. Word is, some important connection were made that night and The Village Trip is here to stay ...

Read more about The Village Trip evening on the Irish Times

American Irish Historical Society and Cornelia Street Cafe

Whereas the AWM and the Village Trip had been collaborative ventures, the concerts at the American Irish Historical Society and Cornelia Street Cafe were totally up to me.  I’d called it “You Won’t Forget Me,” as the story of that song recalls that of Maeve’s.  "You Won’t Forget Me" was written by Kermit Goell and Fred Spielmann in 1953 for Torch Song, a movie that never received much attention  Shirley Horne the song to prominence when she recorded it with Miles Davis and made it the title track for her album in 1993.  That album became a jazz number 1, released shortly after Brennan’s death in obscurity, in a nursing home in Pennsylvania. 

emilie aihs nycWhich is all cool ’n all but my nerves were banging away like when air gets into radiators ahead of the American Irish Historical Society concert.  It would be the debut of some of my original compositions inspired by Maeve’s writings.  But, then as though to assuage the nerves, two magical things happened:  Suddenly free that eve, bassist and dear friend Marcos Varela offered to come play…Marcos’ debut release, San Ygnacio, on Origin Records has earned 5 Grammy ballot considerations and Jazziz Magazines Top releases of 2016.

His kindness calmed me. Secondly, the room in the beautiful AIHS on 5th Avenue was itself as "the accidental setting of an enigmatic but not disquieting dream," the room Maeve describes in Howard's Apartment. With soft lighting from the chandeliers reflected and falling on a sweeping marble staircase and fireplaces, it was also "I Dreamt I Dwelt In Marble Halls," the song I had chosen to accompany this last spoken word excerpt from Maeve's work. The concert went great and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. At the end, I found myself alone in that enchanted room. One pirouette and a last look at the Met across the road through the relentless downpour, then, down to meet the guys and get some chicken at a local diner!

We played our final concert in one of Downbeat’s named 100 jazz clubs in the world! The Cornelia Street Cafe.  It was Memorial Day - memorial indeed.  Not only the year of Maeve Brennan’s centenary, May 29 was also John F. Kennedy’s centenary.  On  July 4 this beloved club of the West Village would turn 40 - and days later would be served an eviction notice. Their rent has gone up to 33,000 a month, 77 times what it was at the start, which as The New York Times contested, “in the name of consistency, they’re not charging $77 for a croissant.”  They most certainly were not …and far from it.  From the moment of my initial contact with their staff and its owner, the visionary Robin Hirsch, I experienced nothing but warmth and absolute generosity.  It felt like they were hosting us. We had a great show that night and big thanks to Peter Victor-Gasper, photographer at The Village Trip and who kindly came to photograph our gig.

emilie cornelia

I hope that this gem of a place with wonderful warm passionate people, somehow magically stays open .. Magic does happen in NYC, well that was what got us there in the first place. I ran late and drenched into the American Irish Historical Society gala dinner in the Waldorf Hotel two years ago, (late because I was coming from a jam session at the Cornelia!)  Clumsy and self-conscious, I deposited a wet bag stuffed with shoes, jumpers and all sorts at the cloakroom, later to completely forget about its midnight closing as we continued our sing song around the piano upstairs with Chris Cahill.  Chris Cahill turned out to be the director of the AIHS and he said, wouldn’t it be nice if I could come back and sing for the society sometime and, “let’s keep in touch.”

But, magic can happen in less obvious places than the Waldorf Astoria! Like Ranelagh Arts Centre, on a grey Sunday in February.  A writer and producer with just a Will-o'-the-wisp idea for a Greenwich Village festival was sitting in the audience and grew excited about what she was hearing.   And subsequently invited me and Darragh and Angela to Greenwich village  …

And then the Cornelia said yes, and then the invitation came from Chicago .. and so ….

So, I dearly hope and pray that magic will prevail and the Cornelia will go on to celebrate many more birthdays and host me and many more musicians for many more gigs :)

P.S.

The Chicago - NYC Peony Rose

nyc penny roseDarragh and I had been very kindly invited to dinner with the Consul and Vice-Consul the night before the Chicago gig and we brought flowers which included some peonies … well it had been a 2 hour trek in blistering heat to get those flowers and when we gave them … I missed them so I couldn’t resist buying a perfectly opening peony in the very expensive florist under the Drake.  I just couldn’t resist it.  It graced the only thing approaching a vase in my room - a big tin ice-bucket.  And, then that peony travelled on with us to NYC.  The air steward, who strongly reminded me of Michael Knight, was particularly careful about stowing it in the overheard locker!  Finally, in room 362 of  "that crummy hotel over Washington Square," that peony became the most beautiful thing living out of a plastic cup.

Emilie Conway
Author: Emilie ConwayWebsite: http://www.emilieconway.ie/
Emilie Conway is an award-winning Dublin born jazz singer, lyricist and composer. She released her debut album, The Secret of a Rose, in 2012 to critical and popular acclaim. Her second album Dear World, released 2016, focused on the work of the under-explored and enigmatic Alec Wilder and was received with particular interest by Wilder enthusiasts in the US. She has won scholarships to Berklee College of Music, Boston, the Vermont Jazz Centre and Souza Lima, Brazil.

Emilie's love of music from Mahler to Monteverdi, Billie Holiday to Joni Mitchell is complemented by her love of words, poetry, sound and silence. Over the years these two loves have blended in performance into a unique approach where she combines standards, originals, improvisation and spoken word, in a way that constantly pushes expectations and boundaries with a blend of both the familiar and the surprising. She sings in Portuguese, Spanish, Irish, French, Swedish, Italian and German.

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