John Minnock (with Dave Liebman)
This is the second collaboration between vocalist John Minnock and NEA Jazz Master saxophonist Dave Liebman, who also serves as executive producer. It’s Minnock’s third release as a leader, and his first for the label. The album pairs Minnock’s signature no-holds-barred wit with introspective lyrics to paint a compelling portrait of contemporary gay life. For this recording, Minnock also brings in decorated composer and songwriter David Shire, who contributes an original new song. Filling out the rest of the set are six original compositions, co-written with Minnock’s friend and lyricist Erick Holmberg, and four stirring cover songs. Joining Minnock is his usual accompanying trio including pianist and Musical Director Enrique Hanenine, bassist Carlos Mena and drummer Pablo Eluchans.
Herring Cove follows the release of Minnock’s 2018 Right Around The Corner, which garnered plenty of attention. As Winner of the 2019 NYC Readers Jazz Award for Best Male Vocalist (cosigned by Hot House Jazz Magazine and Jazzmobile), he has long enthralled audiences with his unique reading of the Great American Songbook through the eyes of a contemporary gay man and ups the ante here. The album sets the stage with its name; Herring Cove is a predominantly gay beach in the LGBTQ epicenter Provincetown (part of the Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts and known colloquially as “P-Town”). Herring Cove was the favored spot of writing partner Erick Holmberg and his late partner Bruce Beckles, who passed from complications from AIDS in 1994. The title track is an ode to his memory and others who have passed.
The original compositions are centered on gay experiences: “Tell Him I’m Fine” tells the all-too-common story of a breakup within a friend group, while “A Melody” is a love song along the lines of classic jazz standards like “Stella by Starlight” and “Laura.” “Unconditional” was written for a boy disowned by his family for being gay (with proceeds from the song to be donated to The Ali Forney Center in NYC, which is the largest LGBTQ community center dedicated to helping homeless youth in the United States), and “Kansas City” turns the excitement and anticipation of relocating to a new place to seeking refuge in a place where one can be accepted for who they are. “Now There’s You” is a beautiful celebration of friendship that features Deborah Lippmann. While the world famous Lippman is known as The ‘Celebrity Manicurist’, she is also an accomplished singer. The unique connection between gay men and straight women is common. The two have a special bond and Enrique Hanenine and Holmberg wrote this one in observation of it. Listening to the tune, their chemistry is palpable.
Liebman arranged three tunes including the two standards “Stardust” and “On Green Dolphin Street.” Working with Liebman in the studio was “a masterclass” said Minnock, adding: “I don’t believe there is any other single person in jazz today who has his level of experience and knowledge. We started with an individual meeting where he listened to every single idea, and the reason behind each and every one. And the musical and thematic discussions continued all through the studio sessions. As a gay man who went through years of denying and hiding, to have this opportunity for expression leaves me astounded.” The connection between Liebman and Minnock was formed for the previous album when Minnock wanted to include the song “New York, New York,” 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.” Seeking a saxophonist that can play versatilely and, in that style, upon his publicist’s recommendation, he found Dave Liebman, heard here on both tenor (i.e. “If I Could Turn Back Time,” “Kansas City”) and his signature soprano. (i.e. “Goes Like It Goes,” “Melody”). His combination soprano and wooden flute on the title track is mesmerizing and some of this disc’s most compelling moments. Those are just a couple of examples.
The album also taps into the cabaret world, Minnock’s former comfort zone. David Shire is a music industry legend and EGOT nominee with a GRAMMY and Academy Award to his name. He has countless scores for Broadway, Off-Broadway, film, and television works plus a close association with Barbra Streisand. Shire’s Oscar-winning song “It Goes Like It Goes” is from the film Norma Rae, with lyrics by Norman Gimbel in addition to an original composition written exclusively for this project, the jazz tune “After All These Years,” inspired by the fight for marriage equality.
Given Minnock’s mission, he obliges with a gay anthem, completely reimagining the Cher hit “Turn Back Time” as an ode to her and the many other gay cultural icons that have empowered LGBTQ people for decades. On Right Around The Corner, Minnock paid tribute to Garland with “Get Happy.” Minnock speaks about this much needed perspective to the jazz audiences. “My hope is to musically express myself with honesty and integrity; something I feel can be done best in a jazz setting. I hope that this new project offers listeners a greater understanding of the LGBTQ community, and most importantly, that they like what they hear!”
There’s drama and great expression in Minnock’s vocal delivery that likely owes to his career in theater and cabaret, but probably mostly to the importance of his cause. And, Liebman’s performances are terrific, some of the best he’s contributed on record. The collaboration works beautifully.
- Jim Hynes