INTERVIEW: Banu Gibson keeps it traditional with her jazz music

New Orleans singer Banu Gibson has released a new album called By Myself. Photo courtesy of the singer.

Banu Gibson, the celebrated interpreter of music from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, has been having a busy year. All of her professional duties are centered on her wondrous interpretation of traditional jazz and the Great American Songbook. The New Orleans singer regularly appears on the stages of French Quarter nightclubs, and she also featured prominently at this year’s French Quarter Fest and New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. This January, she’ll be part of Jazz Fest at Sea, a cruise concert leaving from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Perhaps the biggest news from the singer is the release of her new album, By Myself, which is her first studio effort in several years. “Things weren’t falling together, and this time, I just sort of held a gun on a couple of people,” she said with a laugh. “We went in and did it. I emotionally and artistically needed to get in there, whether it turned out how I wanted it to or not. And then there was always the possibility if I wasn’t happy, then you just sort of sit on it and say, OK, and it goes in a back drawer somewhere until you can either deal with it or just say, that didn’t turn out well. I guess it’s a combination of just when enough material comes together or that the right musicians all end up in the same place. When I first put my band together, we were all here in New Orleans, so there wasn’t a problem with getting into the studio. It was just, OK, let’s go, and since then, some of the guys that I use have … moved out of town.”

Gibson said she loves both recording and performing live, calling them two different animals. She enjoys the interaction she has with her fans, but the perfectionist inside her also loves sessions in the studio. There’s a certain satisfaction that comes with the endless tweaking during the recording process.

“I like being able to — without interfering with the energy, and enthusiasm and intent of the original performance — to go in where it needs to be and just kind of tweak some stuff to get it to be perfect,” she said. “I always find mixing and editing a lot of fun. It’s a little more stressful for me because I tend to produce my own albums, so I’m trying to wear two hats. So I always am in a booth, so I can come back in and do what I need to do.”

Gibson’s piano player, David Boeddinghaus, actually produced her latest album, and she credits him with fine-tuning the songs, taking care of tempos and eliminating any hiccups along the way.

Gibson has been at it for a number of years, and that has afforded her the chance to see the many changes that have occurred in New Orleans and on the jazz scene. She used to work with her band six nights a week. There was an opener to her act, and she would always create the set list depending on the whims of the audience. She gauged her fans for energy and tempo each night.

“That was always a fun thing to do, and when you’re working so steady like that, it’s easy to do because nobody has to go looking for music or anything,” she said. “Everybody knows already what you’re doing. We had quite a big repertoire over the years, so early on, it wasn’t a problem. But as people left, then it became more of a challenge, and I had to do a little bit more pre-planning, and pull music for new guys and then stick a little bit more to a set list, except for getting the occasional request or just crazy stuff that would happen.”

When looking for a musician to join the band, Gibson keeps her list of requirements quite short and to the point. “I like a musician that plays with a lot of balls,” she said. “I don’t like passive players. I like players that bring a lot of energy to the music. … I think that’s what the arts do; they transfer passion from one person to another, and it’s what you’re trying to share with the arts in general is your passion, your idea, your focus on some aspect of art that you get excited about.”

She added: “I think we’ve all had teachers in our lives that maybe we weren’t necessarily thrilled about the subject matter, but they were so much that you picked up their enthusiasm. And I think that’s one of the things I try to do with my music, and especially performing on stage with the type of music that you don’t necessarily get to hear as much as you should. … American Songbook standards, music from the ’20s and ’30s, all the great American composers from [George and Ira] Gershwin, and [Irving] Berlin, and Harold Arlen and Hoagy Carmichael, up through the ’50s with that standard American Songbook, it’s just great melodies and things that people can hang on to, and once they hear it, they really connect. I think that’s why you also see a lot of contemporary singers backing up and revisiting all of that great material, and why you see [Lady] Gaga out there all of a sudden singing some standards with Tony Bennett, and Christina Aguilera doing the same thing.”

Gibson said these standards require the singer to be “very exposed.” The vocal gymnastics that contemporary singers can hide behind are not possible with the music from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Those American songs are much more emotional and raw.

“It’s not screaming something at you that life sucks; it’s sort of sharing more with you life’s tragedies, and you have to bring some honest emotion that people can connect with,” she said. “As opposed to pyrotechnics and a lot of jumping around, which is great when you’re in your teens, but as you age, you sort of grow into maturity of music, and sound and things that connect on a deeper level.”

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

Banu Gibson’s new album is By Myself. Click here for more information and her upcoming concert dates.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications.

E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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