For the past 20 years, Laura Zakian has been making her mark on the UK jazz scene with her captivating covers of well-loved standards from the Great American Songbook. In recent years, her friendship and musical partnership with composer and percussionist Martin Pyne has led her to write her own lyrics, something Zakian has never done before, despite her illustrious career.
Her April 2022 album Dreaming Life solely comprises original material composed by Pyne, with lyrics from Zakian. The compositions are personal to her. “Martin had asked me if I would write lyrics to his music. It had happened at the right time of my career where I was wondering what the next step might be. He would send me tunes and the ones that appealed to me, I’d start writing.”
Pyne mostly writes his own music but occasionally will compose something new with Zakian in mind. Pyne said: “Sometimes I might think a tune that I’ve done could work with vocals and ask for Laura’s opinion. Sometimes Laura has a lyrical nugget, and I would fit an idea around this theme.” Zakian added: “Martin would send his music with a title and that heading will spark my imagination.”
Original titles aren’t always Pyne’s way of sparking imagination though: “Things I’ve written before have often been about books I’ve read and that can be a bit specific which perhaps can be a little limiting. Often, I’ll now try and avoid titles and give them a general working title like ‘mostly fifths’. I read a lot of books and I guess I tend to create imaginary soundtracks; you can call me a frustrated film composer I suppose.”
San Angelo, one of the tracks on the new album, is related to All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy, creating a cinematic Americana theme that was formed in Pyne’s head. Pyne said: “This tune was one where you [Zakian] did use the original material.” Zakian went on to add: “I felt very much that Martin, with the music, had captured the Americana. When I read the book, I really believed that he had captured the story about a young boy who essentially finds himself and becomes a cowboy. Martin had really managed to capture the essence of that, so I wanted to stay very true to the book, lyrically.”
Unlike San Angelo, other tunes on the album find their names borrowed from novels such as Plainsong, by Kent Haruf. “Initially I read the book, I was thinking I’d do the same kind of thing,” says Zakian. “I thought about the actual idea of a plainsong and started to write something which eventually morphed into that one moment where I met Paul [Bartholomew], and the rest is history.”
However, this didn’t seem to be the most touching and personal song for Zakian. “The one for me that’s the most personal is Nobody Knows because that is about a very grim period in my life where I was diagnosed with melancholic depression.” Despite this sounding very romantic, Zakian elucidates: “You fret a lot and worry with constant anxiety. The song describes how nobody can quite understand about why you’re so fretful.”
As you’d expect, there have been quite a few musical inspirations too. Pyne said: “There are obvious jazz names but more interestingly film composers, like Morricone; also Americana and country sounds too – styles which obviously aren’t normal for a lot of jazz musicians. I’m generally interested in melodic music of all sorts. I also play a lot of avant-garde things as well so I guess I’m very happy to draw those sounds in but Laura will obviously say no!” I asked Zakian if Pyne had managed to sneak anything in. She said: “We did with Crab Walk, we got a bit of squeaky gate.” Pyne added: “I think in general musically there’s a lot of openness and all the musicians in the band are happy to draw on different colours.”
As well as lyricists from the jazz canon, Zakian draws her influences from many singer-songwriters. “I listen to people like Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and even Amy Winehouse. This has been my very first approach to writing lyrics, I love it and don’t find it a chore. I find it very stimulating; some content comes quickly, such as Minor Moments. On the other hand, San Angelo was a real labour of love, I found that very challenging because I wanted to stay as true as possible to Martin’s music.”
After listening to the album in full, I was intrigued to know what was planned before the recording session and what was left for the moment. Zakian replied: “Oh, I’m a planner, I’m a bit of a control freak and a big bossy boots so there is a lot of planning and a lot of ideas about what I want and how I want it to sound. But of course, I’m going to allow such amazing musicians to bring their own creativity and if there are changes and shifts, that’s fine.”
For woodwind fanatics, there is special input from reed player Paul Bartholomew on the album. In addition to baritone saxophone and bass clarinet, there’s also a special appearance for the contra alto clarinet. “The contra alto was a new toy that found its way onto the recording later on,” Zakian confided.
When she isn’t in the studio or performing on stage, Zakian’s largely teaching. Did she think her students had an influence on her music and writing? “I do. I think working with so many singer-songwriters has inspired me and pushed me to doing my own writing because I’ve been coaching them and then listening to their lyrics and responding. So yes, it did have quite an impact on the decision to write lyrics.”