London Jazz News

Finding Home interview

Pianist and composer Kate Williams and singer-songwriter Georgia Mancio have been in each other’s musical orbits for nearly 20 years and their stirring new album, Finding Home, features a collection of songs, old and newly co-written, arranged for trio, string quartet and voice. “We know each other well, both musically and as friends,” Williams tells Martin Chilton for LondonJazz News.

Kate Williams formed Four Plus Three featuring trio and string quartet in 2016 and had always intended to eventually expand the line-up by featuring additional guest musicians: “It felt like a very natural evolution for the band to work with Georgia, and as we’ve both led various ensembles of our own I knew that we’d work well together as a team.”

The album “evolved very organically” says Georgia Mancio, and they made a deliberate choice to tackle an eclectic mix of material. There is a terrific cover of No More Blues (Chega de Saudade) by Antonio Carlos Jobim. “The joyousness won us over, along with the great English translation by Jon Hendricks, who for me is peerless as far as lyric-writing goes. It felt like an appropriate homage to two musical idols and the perfect counterbalance to some of the album’s more weighty content,” Mancio says.

She is referring to the thought-provoking and moving trilogy of songs at the heart of the album – The Last Boy on Earth, Halfway and We Walk – which were inspired by events she was told about and/or witnessed herself during three years of volunteer work with refugee groups in Northern France and in the UK.

“My good friend, Ian Shaw, first visited the refugee camp known as ‘The Jungle’ in Calais in 2015, and encouraged a few of us from the jazz community to go back with him. Much maligned in the news, it was a staggering place: people from all different walks of life living largely harmoniously in this old chemical dump. Professors and judges, mothers, artists and doctors who had left everything of their past lives behind, often escaping in dramatic circumstances and making mind-boggling journeys over epic distances,” recalls Mancio.

“The most shocking discovery were how many unaccompanied children – some as young as eight years old – were living there, trying all kinds of desperate means to join family in the UK. Their already vulnerable position was further compromised when the French authorities finally decided to dismantle the camp and ‘relocate’ its inhabitants. Inexplicably they left the children – in barely adapted shipping containers – to the end. Those kids watched fires ravaging the camp and their only support structures stripped away, with no idea what would happen to them.

“I was in touch with a 14-year-old boy from Afghanistan who was trying to reach his uncle (who had gained British citizenship some 15 years ago) in the UK. He ended up in legal limbo for a year, in a situation badly mismanaged by French and British authorities until he was finally allowed into the UK – as had been his legal right all along. The Last Boy on Earth imagines those last few days in the burning Jungle.”

Mancio explains that many others however simply fell by the wayside and champions the invaluable work of the charity Safe Passage who help unaccompanied child refugees access their right to travel to a place of safety. The Last Boy… became the start of the trilogy and the need to document the trauma of these children and vulnerable young adults.

Despite the gravity of the subject matter, there is optimism: “Processing all that suffering felt like half the story,” she adds. “There was also a desire to make something beautiful out of something really ugly. At the end of We Walk the tense changes, suggesting a continuation of the story because ultimately these are people with an incredible resilience and survival instinct. It’s important to remember that those labelled refugees are first and foremost human beings and to recognise the necessity and ability to start over. Like grief, the loss stays with you, but you are also part of a larger world around you and that gives you the optimism to move forward and rebuild.”

Williams, who has worked with the late Bobby Wellins, The Pete Hurt Jazz Orchestra, Chris Biscoe, and Stan Sulzmann, composed an elegant piece called Slow Dawn for her debut performance with her father, classical guitarist John Williams, back in 2017. That tune became the catalyst for the original trilogy, when Mancio transformed it into the poignant We Walk. It is one of two tracks for which the pre-eminent guitarist joins the ensemble. “The instrumental version Slow Dawn was written for my dad to play with Four Plus Three in 2017 – that was the first time we’d worked together,” says the pianist. “Up to that point, we’d always kept our working lives very separate. It was Steve Rubie who first suggested asking JW to guest with Four Plus Three – I’m now very pleased that he did so! ”

“When Georgia suggested Caminando, Caminando by Victor Jara, I was reminded of my dad’s work with the Chilean group Inti-Illimani – who were forced into exile under General Pinochet’s dictatorship – so it seemed like the perfect choice for another track featuring guitar.” Musician and political activist Jara was murdered by the Pinochet regime in 1973, when he was just 40. “Jara’s version is beautifully simple, so I kept the arrangement fairly short and stayed quite close to the original harmonies,” says Williams. “The short duet at the end is John (Garner) on violin and Georgia whistling.”

Williams did all the arrangements on the album. “I usually compose/arrange with a specific player/players in mind. The solo violin piece The Key was written to feature Marie Schreer, and sets the tone for the title track Finding Home which is an original poem of Georgia’s set to music. And more generally, when writing the songs, I always heard Georgia’s voice… things like that make the composition process much easier”.

The album’s content is admirably varied and includes a version of the poignant ballad Don’t Go to Strangers. What helps tie it together is the gorgeous album artwork by Alban Low. “It was a joyful experience working with Alban, whose illustrations are fantastic,” says Mancio. “Because we had so many strands we felt like we needed someone to bring it all together and make a clear statement. The artwork is an integral part of the album.”

Growing up, Mancio admired an interesting array of singers such as Nancy Wilson, Anita O’Day, Norma Winstone, Abbey Lincoln, Carmen McRae and Brazilian singer Elis Regina. Before becoming a professional singer, she worked at Ronnie Scott’s club in Soho and vividly remembers Betty Carter. “Her command of the stage and musicians, her uncompromising love for the music – even if it was the last late set on a Monday night to a diminished audience – she was utterly compelling and driven. If I had a chance to see any artist again, I would choose to be in the presence of the unique Betty Carter.”

Both Williams and Mancio are firm believers in the power of live music and are relishing taking Finding Home on tour, which has funding from Arts Council England, and takes in interesting venues such as the Foundling Museum, the Salvation Army in Thornton Heath (including a family pay-what-you-can show) and Bolton Abbey in Skipton. Williams senior will guest on three of the tour dates.

“For me, seeing a band live and understanding how they interact with each other and the audience, completes the picture,” says Mancio. “We relish the chance to focus on the impact of this emotional experience: to reach as wide a range of audience members as we can, to move them and to do justice to the stories we have been privileged to tell.”