Fully embracing the inspiring, expansive array of American jazz, soul and blues influences that have infused her dynamic career as an artist and live performer, Polly Gibbons fashions a frolicsome, freewheeling musical history lesson on Is It Me… ?, her second release on the indie jazz label Resonance Records.
Capturing the joyful essence of the 12-track collection, the multi-talented British singer, a staple of the UK Jazz Scene since the mid-2000s and recently nominated Vocalist of the Year by Jazz FM says: “It’s a massive melting pot, varied but beautifully linked because I love every style I’m singing. Jazz would never have happened without the blues, which came out of the gospel tradition – and blues is the foundation of contemporary Western culture and pop/soul music, and so on.”
Polly has cultivated her craft and eclecticism over the past decade, performing at all the leading UK jazz clubs, international festivals and as a regular at the legendary venue Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, where she has sung with the All-Stars, led by pianist and house musical director James Pearson.
“There’s always this element of surprise from people who haven’t seen her perform,” says Pearson, Polly’s longtime songwriting collaborator and arranger. “She astounds me, too. She’s unpredictable.” In 2016, she opened the sold out UK tours for George Benson and Gladys Knight and had two acclaimed performances at the Royal Albert Hall. She was also a featured singer with the Liverpool Philharmonic in a presentation of the music and life story of John Lennon.
Polly is quickly establishing herself in the States as well, with shows these past few years in Florida, Boston, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Los Angeles and Birdland in NYC. She released her critically acclaimed UK debut album My Own Company in 2014.
Sharing Polly’s belief that creativity and art are our greatest gifts and that it’s the artist’s obligation to share their innermost truths is George Klabin, the legendary jazz producer who signed her to his label, Resonance Records and released her U.S. debut Many Faces of Love in 2015. Klabin’s production on Is It Me…? has grown in line with the emotional depth of her voice and her innate musical curiosity. She’s especially excited by the buoyant seven-piece horn section, which enhances both her R&B and big band swing vibes. The piano and most of the arranging are shared by Pearson and Tamir Hendelman, the Israeli born, L.A. based jazz pianist to the stars, including Barbra Streisand and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra.
Continuously open to colorful new ideas, Polly and Klabin’s set list mines many unusual and unexpected, but supremely cool sources. She opens with a vibrant, jazzy twist on ‘The Ability To Swing’, a cut from Thomas Dolby’s 1988 album Aliens Ate My Buick, and brings a bluesy elegance to the hopeful theme of ‘Sack Full of Dreams’, introduced by Grady Tate in 1968 but later covered by Donny Hathaway. She taps into the Great American Songbook for a spirited stroll through ‘Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams’ (sung by Bing, Dean, Frank, etc.) and Duke Ellington’s ‘I Let A Song Go Out of My Heart’, on which Polly and L.A. studio trumpeter Willie Murillo showcase their chops at a whirlwind pace.
Polly captures compelling slices of different aspects of Americana via the sparsely arranged ‘Wild Is the Wind’ (title song from the 1957 film, originally recorded by Johnny Mathis and, of course, the iconic version by David Bowie) and a lively retro-big band spin through a sizzling Bill Cunliffe arrangement of ‘Basin Street Blues’, a song she had recorded on her first demo at the age of 18. Polly’s other re-imaginings include a whimsical and waltzy take on ‘Pure Imagination’ (from the 1971 film Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory); and the bold and soaring seduction she brings to Aretha Franklin’s classic ‘Dr. Feelgood’. The collection’s final track, the soulfully swinging ‘Don’t Be On The Outside’ – which has been recorded by everyone from Sarah Vaughan to Shirley Horn – is officially a bonus track on the CD. As the only live track on the collection, it has a unique flavor all its own that sets it apart from the 11 studio tracks.
It’s testament to Polly and James Pearson’s intuitive chemistry as songwriters that their three originals hold up so well against the nine other chestnuts on Is It Me…? Polly takes us to church and explores her rich passion for gospel on the smoldering ‘Midnight Prayer’, which earned the two first place in the singer-songwriter category of the 2014 Indie International Songwriting Contest. She brings jazz and R&B together powerfully on ‘You Can’t Just’, a song about a love that’s on the rocks. The graceful, easy flowing title track ‘Is It Me…?’ offers a gentle oasis in the midst of the deep blues, soul and jazz intensity, with Polly pondering a move from fear to confidence while figuring out, as she muses, “how to love someone else and let that person love you.”
A farmer’s daughter who grew up in Framlingham, a small market town in Suffolk, England, Polly is one of seven siblings in a family that shared all types of different musical loves. Her mum cherished classical and choral music (Bach, Mozart, Chopin), her dad was an electric bassist who played in bands in the 70’s, her brothers loved R&B and her sisters were all vinyl collectors, playing everything from hip hop and soul to jazz and folk.
Polly took obligatory piano lessons at age four, but didn’t realize she could sing till she was around 13. Crippled by an initial shyness, at her first public performance at a school Christmas concert, she sang with her back to the audience. Though she sang hymns regularly at the Baptist church her family attended, her musical sensibilities were galvanized when her sister played Billie Holiday’s ‘I’m A Fool To Want You’ — which Polly found “extraordinary!”
Inspired by Billie, the budding singer experienced an initial flurry of excitement in discovering jazz and blues, listening to such artists as Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Donny Hathaway, Thelonious Monk, etc. She notes, however, that although she doesn’t have a very “folky” voice, she was also greatly influenced by artists like Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Rickie Lee Jones and Bob Dylan, and she continuously listens to classical music, too! Participating in a local music workshop, she met British singer Ian Shaw, who took Polly under his wing and secured her first gig in London when she was 17. Participating in other workshops, she cultivated her talent with bassist Gill Alexander, Jacqui Dankworth (daughter of Cleo Laine) and later, James Pearson.
Reflecting on her subsequent success on the British club scene, Polly says, “I have found that singing is most inspiring for me when I bring a certain lightness of being to it, a certain joy and levity that allows me to communicate more fully with my audience – as if each moment was both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. I have learned to follow my passion wherever it leads me. It’s a fascinating journey that’s always in flux and there are always exciting new goals to work towards.”
Polly’s road now leads her to one of those extraordinary places with the release of Is It Me…? The album is a journey all its own – a culmination of so many moments that also signifies a meaningful new beginning for both the singer and contemporary jazz.