Singer and song interpreter John Minnock returns with Simplicity, reprising his artistic partnership with saxophonist-composer and NEA Jazz Master Dave Liebman and following Minnock’s acclaimed 2020 release Herring Cove, which we covered on these pages. Minnock continues to evolve his sound, but fans of Kurt Elling and Mark Winkler will find that Minnock has a similar, elegant vocal approach. His storytelling repertoire includes originals and heartfelt interpretations of familiar songs, each reflecting harmonic sophistication and homage to his beloved LGBTQ community with more than ample support from Mathis Picard and Sean Mason on piano (tracks 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 3, 8, respectively), Mark Lewandowski and Carlos Mena on bass (tracks 2-8 and 1, respectively), Pablo Eluchans on drums and Liebman on saxophone, serving as the project’s executive producer. Liebman, Mena, and Eluchans return from the previous recording while Picard, Mason, and Lewandowski are the newcomers.
As he did last time, Minnock collaborates with songwriter David Shire. We hear the opening title track, which bears resemblance to “After All These Years” from Herring Cove as Minnock treats the melody in unconventional nuanced ways. Stretching Minnock’s stylistic range, “He Was Brazilian” animates a story inspired by Bossa Nova patterns and progressions, upon which he comments, “There are so many similarly fun, flirty and sexy Bossa Nova songs and now there’s one for the LGBTQ community.” Lewandowski and Liebman expectedly provide substantive instrumental breaks to complement Minnock’s melodic phrasing. “Angel Eyes” introduces a recurring theme throughout the album — extended intros, often including instrumental solos up front, not only to share the focus with the musicians but to allow the vocalist to immerse himself in the vibe of the song. Liebman’s ability to comp seems to inspire Minnock to return to the story.
“Cape’s End,” penned by Picard with lyrics from Minnock and Erick Holmberg, becomes an extension of “Herring Cove.” The slippery noir-inspired introduction from Liebman that slides around, out of time and becomes even strident at times, emerges continually as Minnock shares the story of one lonely heart wandering and eventually finding romance in that prototypical LGBTQ locale, Provincetown. The sparse ballad “Bordeaux.” Is more of a feature for the other three quartet members who envelop Minnock’s vocal with intimate accompaniment. The singer intended for the ballad to reference duets between Maureen McGovern and Mike Renzi. “It’s very romantic,” says Minnock. “If you pay close attention, you’ll notice Mathis is completely in sync with what I’m doing. He hits when I hit. He knew exactly what I was gonna do.”
Yes, it’s a pleasant surprise to hear Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” in the program as Leibman and Picard play beautifully with the rhythm tandem setting the relaxed, breezy tone before Minnock enters five minutes in. Liebman echoes the solos from both Shorter and Hubbard on his soprano. “Everything Reminds Me of You,” features music from Picard with more lyrics from Holmberg as Minnock elongates some of the lyrics in this phrasing, giving the tune a sad, longing veneer. The vocalist jumps out of that mode on the chestnut, “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” with Mason on piano and Liebman delivering a spirited unaccompanied intro. As Minnock articulates the lyrics, one gains a true appreciation for his unique phrasing in this oft-covered tune, and, for extra measure, both he and Mason add touches of sarcasm to it. The melding of his voice with Liebman’ soprano on the crescendos creates a remarkable harmonic only to dissolve quickly in the diminuendo that closes the tune.
While Herring Cove was more emotive and may have delivered a stronger impact, this material is more challenging, with Minnock clearly up to the task, buttressed by this stellar quartet. Jazz doesn’t yet have many LGBTQ voices as other genres do, making Minnock’s contributions that much more valuable.