Taking off: Imogen Ryall

Brighton-based vocalist and lyricist Imogen Ryall looks set to gain wider acclaim with a new trio album featuring long-time musical associates, sax player Julian Nicholas and pianist Mark Edwards. She talks to Peter Quinn about lyrical inspirations and more

Anyone fortunate enough to have heard the great Claire Martin launch her latest album Believin’ It at Ronnie Scott’s earlier this year could not fail to have been struck by the remarkable title-track, based on a standout Andy Bey scat solo from his fine 1998 album, Shades of Bey. Featuring the most circuitous melodic line whose internal rhythms slithered around like beads of liquid mercury, and matched by word-smithing of the very highest order, it was one of the high-points of a remarkable evening. The lyricist? Imogen Ryall.

“To hear her doing it, I was just in bits,” Ryall says. “It’s just been an absolute thrill to do that and the Wes Montgomery album.” The latter refers to new lyrics Ryall has penned for ‘Back In The Room (Bock to Bock)’ which features on a wonderful tribute album to the guitar legend, Bumpin’.

For her part, Martin has nothing but praise for her fellow Brightonian: “I’ve always thought that Imogen Ryall was a major talent and have been in awe of her lyric writing and vocal abilities for many years. She’s like a hidden diamond – her range is fantastic, her feel, tone and time are sublime and she sings with heart and honesty. I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with her on my last couple of projects and she’s a dream to work with.”

Ryall’s own recordings to date include Alone Together with guitarist Andy Williams, Waltz for Ruth with pianist Rod Hart and bassist Dave Green, plus There Will Be Time with the Jack Kendon Quintet, featuring sax player Julian Nicholas.

Named after the Australian-born actress, broadcaster and singer, Anona Winn, her new Anöna Trio project with Nicholas and pianist Mark Edwards looks set to bring her wider public attention, with the release of a striking new album One January Morning. Recorded at James McMillan’s Quietmoney Studios in Hastings over two days in 2017, McMillan recalls the date with great warmth: “Imogen’s refreshingly honest delivery and gorgeous tone were a great pleasure to record. The marriage of her tone and Mr Edwards’ beautiful touch is a joy.”

Ryall, Nicholas and Edwards are long-standing musical friends and collaborators. The singer has performed in Edwards’ band The Cloggz since 2015, and recorded on their acclaimed 2016 debut album, Sawdust and Spangles. She’s also a featured vocalist and lyricist with the Julian Nicholas Band.

“They wear their emotional heart on their sleeves,” Ryall says of the duo. “It really comes out in their playing and their supportiveness. Mark can set up this incredibly solid rhythmic thing, particularly in Cloggz, and you feel very buoyed up by that. As a trio, we’re all responsible for the time, but there’s something that makes you feel absolutely free, that you can go anywhere, and he’d be right there with you. And it’s the emotional thing that he imbues in his playing. It’s also to do with that rich grounding in gospel, as well as jazz.”

She considers herself fortunate to have studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama at a time when Norma Winstone, Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor were all visiting tutors, not only getting to hear Azimuth live, but also singing arrangements of the Taylor/Winstone-penned ‘Adios Iony’, as well as Winstone’s lyrics to the Ralph Towner tune, ‘Celeste’, originally recorded by Towner on Old Friends, New Friends. She recalls the encouragement of John Taylor, who directed the small band at Guildhall, with enormous fondness.

In terms of being inspired to write her own lyrics, Ryall cites Winstone as being “my absolute idol. My dad had a couple of her records in his collection. I always loved the fact that she wrote lyrics to a lot of Kenny Wheeler’s music, so I had that in my mind that that was a thing you could do. And I liked singing wordlessly.

“I think the first lyric I wrote was either for ‘My Little Suede Shoes’ or ‘All Across the City’ by Jim Hall, because I just loved the title. I did it for my own amusement on gigs and somebody said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that had words’. And it kind of encouraged me to carry on. The title is the starting point – what does it suggest? And I like to be moved. As far as lyrics go, I love Joni Mitchell’s storytelling – the emotional journey – particularly the Mingus album.” Ryall also name-checks Ira Gershwin, Dorothy Fields and Donald Fagen as among her favourite lyricists.

Listening to her performance of Carla Bley’s ‘Lawns’ (featured on One January Morning), one of the most exquisitely beautiful and heartfelt things I’ve heard all year, it’s clear that this hidden diamond deserves the widest possible audience.

This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Jazzwise. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!

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