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2004-09-04 - 8:47 a.m.

I think this interview with Gilbert Isbin is just about ready

IC: Gilbert, your new CD is already getting a lot of attention - quite deservedly - what category would you use to describe the music - is it folk or jazz or artsong, for example?

GI: It's difficult to describe. The place where we haven been performing have all been Jazzclubs or festivals linked to jazz. I call it worldjazz, a mixture of worldmusic rhythms, grooves and the sophisticated harmony of jazz.

IC: Your interpretations of Nick Drake have been widely acclaimed. Can you see any link with your new CD of 12 songs all of which you have written all the music for ?

GI: Working on the Nick Drake arrangements stimulated and inspired me to again focus on more composed music and on writing songs. As a matter of fact Snake Talk has to my mind a kind of ND influence, especially in its harmonic development, the friction between minor and major, and perhaps the floating melodic line. Imagine the song sung by Nick and I guess there's perhaps a point of influence.

IC: The lyric of Snake Talk really caught my attention on a first listening. Where is Falmingoul? Is that a real of mythical place?

GI: Flamingoul is a small village in the Ardennes, in Wallonie, a region in Belgium, where Emile spent a few days. It's a mythical place in the Emile's mind,I suppose. It's to me a quiet abstract poem. I felt it like a sort of bluesy love song, there's something melancholy in it. That's why I started the song in Cm. I first wanted to use a blues progression but then other harmonic possibilities came up into my mind. It was written very quickly. It took only a hour or so. This in contrast to other songs, like letters, for which I wrote 9 different versions.

IC: Amazing that the song came together so fast. How long had you been working with Emile when this inspiration came to you?

GI: Usually Emile sends me a lyric and then I use it as an inspirational tool for writing the music. Emile mailed me Snake Talk which was meant to be used for another project 'Snakes' with different contributors including Vinny Golia and Joe Fonda as well as the Gilbert Isbin Group, in a more free improvisational context.

But as I read it, I realized that it would be a good lyric for the Water With A Smile CD. I took the guitar and the whole song just fled out of me. It doesn't happen every time you know !

But my collaboration with Emile Clemens started quite a long time ago. I guess we know each other for ten years now. I accompanied at first at several of his poetry performances.

IC: Can you say anything about how your understanding of Emile’s poetry has developed over that period? By the way is the poetry always in English?

No Emile published 2 books with short stories and poetry but all into Dutch. We decided however to use his English poems for the group - singing into Dutch the market is too small. Emile's English poetry reminds me of the poetry of Thom Gunn, whose poetry I like very much. As a matter of fact I use a poem of Gunn for a new song, Tamer and Hawk. The song is based on the chord-progression of 'Boymanblues' the song that appeared on Gilbert Isbin Plays Nick Drake.

I love Emile’s poetry very much, it's cliche-free, it's sometimes quite abstract or with several possible interpretations in the poems. They always surprise me.

IC: Tell me about how you work with Lea van Loo in building a song from one of Emile's lyrics. Do you simply write the vocal line down and hand it over in a rehearsal or do the three of you work more closely before it gets to rehearsal stage?

GI: I always write the vocal line and the harmony of the song down via Finale and then record it as Lea is not a good reader - she's completely self-taught.. On the day of a rehearsal I give a cassette to her and the week after she can sing it faultlessly. Then I handle the score to the bass-player and percussion-player. The score is written like scores you can find in the Real Book.

IC So that's like a classic jazz lead-sheet - top line and chords?

GI: Yes that's it. We run through the music and if I feel there's something not really working well or if Lea says some notes are not feeling comfortable I change something in the melody line or add other chords to the song, leave other out, try another rhythm, add an intro, an outro, etc. Then the next rehearsal I give the changed score to the rhythm section again and we try it out etc. I am open to all possible suggestions of the other members. So let's say I write the song but the arrangements are done by all four members.

IC So when there's a sudden time change in the song - is that usually your idea or will it have come from the group?

No the time changes are all my ideas. I like composing different atmospheres by using different time changes, modulations, etc.In fact nothing much changes in the structure, the harmonic development of melodic lines of the song itself in rehearsal. The group contribution comes especially the coloring of the music.

For example - for what concerns Peter? He suggested to use the cajon and the handclapping for Suite For Dark Shades which were great ideas. For Water With A Smile he started accompanying it on tabla. Lea's contribution is especially focused on the improvisational parts. She very inventive in this. I am always astonished when she comes up with all these beautiful improvised lines over sometimes quite difficult changes.

IC Some of the songs are very catchy , Stories for example keeps running through my mind. It is very compressed too. Have you been trying to use techniques from popular song on this album?

I am always exploring other people's work. For instance Sting modulates a fair amount, there's usually something surprising in most of his songs.

Ian Anderson frequently uses time changes and also catchy grooves. I have been listening a lot recently to the last two albums of Jeff Beck, You Had It Coming and Jeff. There are so many things happening in his music, different hooks, changes in mood, atmosphere, soft and loud interludes.

I also wanted to record the songs with a pop attitude in terms of their length. Most of the songs are 3 minutes long, except from Water With A Smile. Also the solos were kept on purpose to the minimum and not focussed on playing fast lines to impress.

Stories was again written quite fast. There are a lot of chords in it and it modulates in the middle section and changes to a sort of bossa nova rhythm.

IC: What plans do you have to get the music to the wider audience that might appreciate this side of your work?

It's a good question. Our label, Jazz'Halo will send 300 copies to magazines, radios, distributors worldwide. For my contribution , I am looking for getting as many concerts as possible, to attract jounalists, get interviews, sell Cds, Also to get the group going. It's the first time I have had to deal with being a leader of a group, so I am responsible for getting the other 3 other members motivated.

These days not easy to get into the picture. There are so many recording released. And it's mostly concentrated on what you look like. Our CD is it radiofriendly enough, I think... But I hope we are original enough to find our way through this jungle.

IC: You are absolutely right – it the music would make excellent airplay – it is accessible and original at the same time and very very catchy. Good luck with getting it to a wider audience and thank you for talking to me.

GI: Thank you.

The new Gilbert Isbin Group CD, Water With A Smile, is distributed in the UK by www.guitarcds.net/

For details see


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