Whether lending his smooth baritone to a ballad or practicing the art of vocalese, Giacomo Gates brings a sense of honesty to a song. So much so, that when he says straightfaced that the trombonist hasn't shown and then proceeds to fill the void with the best mouth trombone you ever want to hear, you believe him. Gates' on and offstage persona reflects a genuineness borne of working the Alaskan pipeline and oil rigs off the shores of Lake Charles, Louisiana. More importantly though, his authenticity is that of a world-class vocal stylist and astute student of the music.
Growing up in Bridgeport, Conn. during the ë50s and ë60s, Gates was consumed with music and, as he tells it, the lyrics meant a lot. "I always sangÖI played guitar for about 6 or 7 years but I'd just rather singÖ Here I am trying to play chord changes and I'm being distracted by the words under the notesÖ'cause it's great notes and great words too."
While his father's record collection, which included Basie, Ellington and Cab Calloway, piqued his interest in big band vocalists, Gates also remembers tuning into NYC radio DJ Frankie Crocker and hearing his theme, the King Pleasure classic, "Moody's Mood for Love." However, it was a trip to a local record store that really steered him toward the premier practitioners of vocalese. "I was hip to Basie and like a mile and a half from where I live...they had a big record store. I remember seeing Sing a Song of Basie [Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, Impulse!, 1957] there and I'm thinking to myself, well I know who Count Basie is but this is like 3 singers that sing Basie. I must've been maybe 16 and I took that home and I said wow."
Gates is a walking jazz encyclopedia and you quickly realize that he gives vocalists and instrumentalists equal billing. He speaks about early influences like tenorists Charlie Rouse and Dexter Gordon in the same breath as singers Eddie Jefferson, Nat Cole and even Dean Martin.
This is a key to his unique style and as he explains it, he views himself as a member of the band. "I'm pretty loose... It's not like I'm making everything upÖbut improvisation is in the momentÖI don't make out set lists. I feel the set list is very limitingÖI'm in the band, not singing in front." Not surprisingly, when Hammond B3 artist Eddie Landsberg put together his paean Remembering Eddie Jefferson (Berghem, 2002), that included saxophonist/ flutist James Spaulding, he looked to Giacomo to do vocal honors.
A hallmark of vocalese is the ability to put words to complex instrumental breaks while retaining the original solo's tempo and timbre. A most difficult exercise to be sure, but when done well, the lines between voice and instrument blur. Gates accomplishes this through repeated listening until the instrumental solos speak to him, "It's a question of listening to it more times than I can count and hearing itÖYou got to dig it for one thing, you got to dig the player who is playing it and you got to dig what he is saying and if you hear those notes enough they turn into words. I don't want to sound corny but it speaks to you after a while. You got to listen to it a lotÖlike hundreds of times."
John Russell's production allows Giacomo's latest, Centerpiece (Origin, 2004), to have a wonderfully live feel as solos originally performed by James Moody, Gene Ammons and Illinois Jacquet are vocalized. In addition, newly penned lyrics to the Miles Davis tune "Milestones" illustrate how the music does indeed speak. "What got me was the title, ëMilestones,' and he's doing: ëbop bup be bah, bop boop be dah, bop boop be do dah'. To me it sounds like it was measurements. So it's like, well hell, he's measuring something man: yard-sticks me-ters, in-ches li-ters, Can you mea-sure life?"
Gates further notes that his lyrical reinterpretation of Lee Morgan's "Speedball" entitled "Spinnin" (Fly Rite, Sharp Nine, 1998) used the great trumpeter's demise at the hand of a lover as inspiration. "The analogy was about a guy who is strung out on a woman and she picks him up and puts him down, which is exactly what ëSpeedball' is all about, you know it is cocaine and heroin, one picks you up and one puts you down. I don't mess with that, but a woman is known to drive a man to pick himself up and put himself down."
With his rich sense of what came before, Giacomo is quick to credit his predecessors while also understanding their individuality. "One of things about this music for me has been that the artists or musicians are unique. Louis Armstrong was influenced by somebody. He wasn't really the first. There was somebody in front of him. I have no qualms about giving cats like Jon Hendricks and Eddie Jefferson their due. I got a whole lot of what I do from them. I got it from Al Jarreau. I got it from Mose Allison. I got it from Dean Martin and Sinatra and Betty Carter tooÖ I'm trying to be in the tradition but yet take it forward." As Gates continues to craft his own singular musical identity, you can't help but believe him.