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THOMPSON'S BAR, OFF TOTTENHAM COURT ROAD, LONDON 5.30 P.M. AUGUST 7TH.

'Here where it is always night
Safe from the sombre sun
I see your shadowed smile
And I am quite undone'
From: 'At Night I Burn'

'Another scotch Rocco?' asked Peter Bryant, his affected New York accent not quite able to obliterate the tony tones inculcated by ten years of expensive public school education.

The dead, Bogart eyes of the pianist, weary beyond words, lifted from the table, and looked in a suspicious, unfocussed way over to the journalist seated opposite him. Rocco looked hung-over; but then mused Bryant, Rocco always looked hung-over. Yet even Bryant couldn't remember Rocco ever looking so downcast, so downbeat. Everything about Rocco seemed beat-up, used-up…overdriven. There was less of the venom, the anger that made Rocco fizz; all Bryant saw was an old-man running on empty. Maybe after fifty years of Rocco pissing up the leg of society, society was starting to piss back. Or maybe Rocco was just running out of piss.

Sad.

Rocco pushed his empty glass over the chipped and charred table towards Bryant, 'Sho', shoot de sherbert, Herbert; jus' keep 'em comin' Mr Journalist Man.' The words were slurred and that coupled with Rocco's thick Jamaican accent made him difficult to understand. Difficult to understand except for the sarcasm flavouring every word, sarcasm that made Rocco's attitude to Bryant abundantly clear: as far as Rocco was concerned Bryant was as hip as a hernia.

'What are you doing with yourself these days Rocco?' asked Bryant casually as he poured the musician a very large slug of Black Label.

Absentmindedly Rocco drew a hand across his wet mouth, the flaccid black skin of his face stretching then sliding only slowly, tiredly back into place. 'Dis'n dat,' came the enigmatic reply, 'maybe saucing a little on de much side.' Rocco laughed at his own joke as he curled a huge hand around the tumbler of scotch and raised it to his mouth. Even loaded, even hit with the blahs, Rocco's hands – those beautiful, gorgeous, octave-spanning hands – never trembled, never shook and never wavered. How many of today's piano wizards would be able to do that when they're seventy thought Bryant: seventy and tanked.

'Hear you've been backing a new girl singer.'

Ignoring the question, Rocco slurped up the scotch, a dribble of amber liquid tracking down his chin to pool on the table. Uncaringly Rocco wiped the sleeve of his suit jacket across the table to mop it up. Only when he was satisfied that the table was dry did he look up at the journalist, studying the man's long thin, pinched face and staring into his small darting eyes for several seconds before speaking. 'Hey mon, yo' trying to breath ma' air? How yo' knows ah's backing a canary?' Rocco's tone was caustic and dangerous; he might be old, he might be addled, but he was a bear of a man and vicious when riled.

'Just wanna keep up to date man, just wanna keep up to date. You know what the jazz world is like; nothing's a secret for long.' Bryant's tone was conciliatory as he poured another large shot of scotch to replace the mouthful that Rocco had just consumed, 'She any good?'

A wry laugh from Rocco, 'Any good? Dat frail's gonna be a real barnburner: great set o' pipes an' a chassis to match. Hmmm, hmmm.'

'Good looking eh?' Bryant encouraged.

'Yo' said it mon, a hum dum dinger from Dingerville. Nice as vice.'

This was always the trouble with interviewing Rocco Bryant thought as he took mental notes; everything the veteran pianist said was shrouded in a drunken slur and encoded into jive talk. But sometimes, just sometimes, hidden away in the static were real pearls of wisdom.

'I hear…' began Bryant but he was cut off by Rocco.

'Yo's hearin' too much on de much side mon. Ah tinks yo's pumpin' Rocco here fo' mo' dan gas. An' angle shooter like yo' mon, wantin' de lowdown and dirty got to make wiv de happy money.'

'Oh come on Rocco, jazz journals don't allow me any expense money,' protested Bryant contorting his face into what he hoped was an expression of hopelessness.

A snort of derision from Rocco, 'Las' time ah's hearin' mon, yo's hooked up wiv de idiot-box and dat means serious action. Bet yo's shitting sugar. Bet yo' don't come down to Thompson's Bar too offen dees days; not slick enough for a cat like yo'. Only good nuff for us musicians. I hear dey callin' yo' 'Mr Jazz' now yo' got yo' own TV show an' such. So Mr Jazz,' the sneer was heavy in Rocco's voice, he had no time for jazzers – like Bryant - who didn't play, 'yo' wanna blow heavy or yo' wan' Rocco to hit de bricks?'

Bryant smiled his best smile, the one he kept in reserve for his most difficult interviewees; amazing he thought that he should have to apply all this effort on small change like Rocco, but this story had all the makings of a real earner.

'Hey take it easy Rocco, we're friends right?'

A dismissive shrug from Rocco, 'Mother like you ain't got no friends,' he took another drink, 'but den ah suppose a mother like me ain't got no friends neither.'

Bryant smiled away his discomfort, 'OK, I might be able to pull you twenty five.'

Another snort from Rocco, 'Dat's chump change mon: a high C or fo' yo' an' me de chill is on.'

A quick look at Rocco persuaded Bryant that this time the pianist knew just how valuable his information was, and that negotiating would do nothing except waste time. 'A hundred it is then.' A nod of agreement from Rocco and Bryant dug out his wallet and handed over the cash: not too bad he thought, having budgeted a hundred and fifty, 'OK Rocco tell me about this singer. What's her name?'

'N.'

'Crazy name!'

'Crazy frail.'

'That her real name?'

'Who noes mon, ah's a pianist not a Pinkerton, you dig?'

'And where'd you meet her?'

'She sang in 'Marmalade's'…'

'That's a club in Yorkshire isn't it?'

'Too right mon. Oop where de sun never shines; where de men are men an' de sheep are nervous.' He took another pull at his Scotch, 'Anyway ah's asked to put a band together for dis chick, dat dey should be modernistic cats who ain't gonna come up weak. So ah get de best in de West mon, an' de best don't cum cheap. Mind mon, yo' wanna hear dis band, all us getting our dicks hard at de same time an' makin' sum fiiiiiine music.' 'Well they got you Rocco and you're good.'

Rocco's eyes sparked, 'Nah mon ah ain't 'good', ah's a 'great'. One of de best. Nah screw dat, ah am de best tho' dis Esborn Svensson cat ain't bad. But he's Swedish and everyone know nothing good ever come outta Sweden 'cept tall pussy.'

'What do you know about N?'

'Not much mon; she ain't no doggess dat's fo' sure, dat girl's fine as wine. Goes in an' out in all de right places; good pipes; written some good tunes…'

'She writes?'

'Yo' bet, ol' Rocco here doin' de arranging. Real difficult stuff too, no three-chord crap. Ol' Smithy on de skins been moanin' and groanin' about de rivums. Dis girl sorta likes 6/4 time.'

'Commercial?'

'Don't know, dis music's ain't like anyting dis cat's heard; sho' ain't doin' de cruise-ship jazz like dere selling the cuffs 'n collars now. Not like Diana Krall or any of dem smooth items doin's de show tunes. Dis chick's got a brain, know's dat only dead fish swim wiv de stream. Nah, she does sort o' sexy stuff dat's heavy on de off beat. De mixing being done by some dance-music mother, one dem cats wiv de computers…'

'They're mixing it! So it's not straight acoustic jazz!'

'Nah dis is nu-jazz mon, like dem French cats wiv de weird names make.'

'Erik Truffaz and Marc Moulin?'

'Yeah, dems de cats.'

'I don't know if I really like nu-jazz,' admitted Bryant.

'You'll like dis mon, it's really heavy. Dis is 'jazz noir', dis is de next step. Yeah you'll like dis man…dat is if'n you've got the use ov de family brain-cell. Dis chick's high, fly and too wet to dry. A real mother. Gonna be a staaaaaaar!'

'You really think so?'

'Yeah, she could make it…' Rocco drifted off for a minute as though lost in contemplation. 'She's got de looks, she got de talent, she got some good tunes. Just wish ah'd met her twenty years ago, den…' He shook his head mournfully, 'Yeah she could be de wun. She could be…important. Maybe her stuff's outta left-field but she could do it. 'Another slurp of scotch and a scowl, 'Maybe she's weird 'cos…' he shut up realising he was drifting into dangerous territory.

''Cos what?' prompted Bryant.

''Cos she's a Ruski, 'cos she's a player, 'cos she likes dis cat Skryabin, 'cos she's got a brain, 'cos she's young an' cute an' got de chops an' she's singing jazz.'

'She's Russian?'

'Sho' was: born in Moss-Cow, doe yo' never guess 'cos her English is lah-de-dah. She bin in livin' in de north, in Yorkshire, where all dem cats wear woad an' simlar.'

'What do you mean that her music's 'left-field'?' Bryant asked.

Rocco shrugged, 'Well she don't do Moon-In-June shit dat fo' sure. Lays it heavy on de sexual if yo' dig?' 'So she's a sexy singer.'

'Does yo' bunny chew de carrots? See dis girl do de business and yo' be red hot an' ready to moan. Sho' makes my dick itch an' wiv de mileage I got dat's sho' somethin'.'

The conversation lapsed for a moment as Rocco consumed another black cigarette.

'What's she like on stage?' This was another key question, this was why Bryant had taken the trouble to hunt down Rocco, this was the reason the story was so valuable. The rumours about what this girl did on and off stage were electric.

A large beatific smile stretched across Rocco's face and just for a moment sparks danced in his yellowed eyes. He leant back in his chair and ran his huge hands over his equally huge belly, affecting an air of contentment. 'Hmmm, hmmm, ain't dat de question mon; wot's dis chick like on stage.' Suddenly he rocked forward, his face now mere centimetres from that of the journalist's, so close that Bryant could see the pores on the musician's obsidian skin, could smell his jazz perfume – that unique blending of alcohol, cigarette smoke and sweat - could feel his hot, sweet breath on his cheek. 'Ah's tell yo' wot dis chick's like on stage: she like yo' best wet dream made flesh; she like dat first cigarette of de day; she like dat last line o'coke; she like everything yo' ever wanted and dere she be, slinking on stage, an' all yo' gotta do is reach out a hand to touch it. Mon ah's sitting behind her pumpin' de ivories, watching dat ass movin' around an' Ol' Henry here's liftin' de piano trying to sneak a peak. When dey see her everyone gonna want a piece of dat ass.'

A slow, quiet smile ghosted across Bryant's lips, that's what he'd heard and, glory be, here he was at the head of the queue.

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Q. You’re a Russian jazz singer...

A. Well for sure I am Russian. I was born in Moscow 36 years ago and I came to the UK just 8 years ago. I call Yorkshire home now.

As for the jazz singer tag, that I think needs a little clarification. Certainly I’ve spent much of the last eight years singing jazz but because I have only come to jazz since I’ve been in the UK I don’t think I will ever be seen as a conventional jazz singer. Much of the way I sing is instinctive – although I’m a trained musician most of my ‘education’ regarding jazz singing has come from listening to the greats and from gigging three or four times a week. Also I’m not locked into ‘jazz’ material – I think to truly express yourself you’ve got to do material that you’ve got a creative or emotional investment in.

So... I suspect the jazz police would say that I’m not a ‘real’ jazz singer and would further protest that the material I sing isn’t jazz either. They will also probably have trouble with the effects and production values used on my album and in my performances.

But I think even they would agree that what I’m doing is jazz-tinged. I’m happy with that. I can’t work up the energy to argue about whether I’m a jazz singer or not, it’s irrelevant anyway. So put me down as a ‘jazzy’ singer rather than a ‘jazz’ singer!

Q. So what is your definition of your style of music?

A. Most of my songs began as jazz songs or at least as jazzy songs so there is a lot of jazz flavouring in my music. The band has a deep jazz background so it’s impossible to keep jazz out of the music.

But then we’ve melded the songs to modern dance rhythms and introduced modern production effects so the result is something of a hybrid music. Its sort of Portishead collides with Charlie Parker or Lamb meets Miles Davis. Trip Bop rather than Trip Hop.

The tag-line we used for the promotion of my first album 'Jazz Noir' was ‘Dance Kicks with Jazzy Licks’! That I think was a good encapsulation of what the band and I were doing three years ago when 'Jazz Noir' was released.

Q. Your first album was released in 2003...

A. Yes, ‘Jazz Noir’ was released in March 2003 on Zone 7... the new label established by the UK jazz label Candid (www.candidrecords.com).

Q. Was the material on ‘Jazz Noir’ original?

A. Right from the outset I wanted to do original material. Most jazz orientated singers seem to rely on mining the Great American Songbook, but my feeling is that that particular lode is close to exhaustion. Of the 11 tracks on the album 9 were original compositions written by various combinations of myself, members of my band and Rod who produced the album.

I included just two covers; ‘Use Me’ the acid-jazz classic by Bill Withers and ‘Boy from Ipanema’ which most people associate with Astrud Gilberto. These though we’ve extensively reworked so I think the versions on ‘Jazz Noir’ are uniquely mine.

Q. Did the ‘Jazz Noir’ album have a prevailing theme?

A. I certainly wanted a consistent tone to the album but we never intended to make a ‘themed’ album. Listening to it now, however, there does seem to be a thread running through and linking the songs. Virtually all the songs are noirish, dark, erotic even. And the subject matter revolves around the stomping ground of the noir-milieu: the demi-monde of night-clubs; the almost predatory nature of sex in night-clubs and bars; and the grown-up sexuality of modern women.

When I first began singing jazz standards I was drawn to the more emotionally charged songs... ‘Don’t Explain’, ‘How Insensitive’, ‘My Funny Valentine’ - these were the type of songs I enjoyed performing. I guess when we began writing and selecting songs for the album we used these classic tunes as benchmarks, as jumping off points. So it was natural that the songs on the album should be similarly dark and erotically charged. The music on ‘Jazz Noir’ is, well, jazz noir.

Q. You've now finished your second album.

A. Since 2003 I've been working on new material. It took much longer than I anticipated mainly because my musical style kept evolving, but now I think I've got a bunch of songs that I'm really happy with. I've the new album 'Sex & Bile' because that neatly summarises the two 'feels' running through the mix of songs. Some of the songs - 'Dancing'; 'Falling In Love Again'; 'Angel Eyes'; and 'Love That Binds' - deal with love and the erotic aspects of a relationship. Others - 'Tank Town'; 'They Want Us Dumb'; and 'My Life As A Porn Star' - are much more concerned with social commentary. It's a different album to 'Jazz Noir' but the lineage is recognisable.

It's still a jazz album though...well at least a jazz album as I would classify jazz.

Q. What is your definition of jazz?

A. Apart from the distinctive musical structure of some jazz styles, for me the defining elements of jazz are its emotional depth and its spontaneity.

The great jazz singers and players are, in my opinion, those who are able to wring emotion from a song or a tune. They are those rare performers who can communicate the pain, the anguish, the despair, the longing, the happiness, the eroticism, the whatever of a piece of music in such a way that the listener becomes absorbed into and touched by the music.

As a singer the relationship of words/music and vice-versa is extremely important to me. The technical side of jazz singing and musicianship interests me less than the ability of the musician to move an audience. There are many technically gifted jazz singers on the scene today (and I’ve seen most of them live) but only a handful have touched me with their performances.

The second important element to jazz is improvisation. Utilising as I am modern dance rhythms and effects means that live my music must be tightly disciplined, but we’ve tried hard to retain an element of improvisation. Jazz is the music of surprise and working with such a superlative group of musicians it’s essential to give them as much latitude as I am able to express themselves. This uncertainty is the element that has given jazz its edginess and I wanted to keep that edge.

Thinking about it there is some resemblance in philosophy between my music and that of the big-band jazz of the pre-war era. Both are tight, disciplined and designed to be danced to, but both have enough elbow-room for great musicians to shine and astound. And believe me my music swings too, although it swings in the modern style!

Q. What style of music interested/interests you?

A. Musically, my early years in Russia were dominated by the classics – Chopin, Tchaikovski, Beethoven, Skriabin – I studied classical piano for about 10 years. Of course I knew the marching and labour songs that celebrated the Communist movement and which were an integral part of Russian life before Glasnost, and I loved the Romance songs, the poetically rich traditional love songs of Russia. Romance songs have a strong gypsy element and are musically quite loose. That’s probably why I particularly enjoyed performing them, you can take liberties over phrasing especially regarding the use of pauses. Just like jazz songs...

When the Beatles made a belated appearance in Russia, their music was a major influence on my life and my musical outlook. It’s because of them that I chose English as my major at university!

I still love rock’n’roll but I suppose my musical taste nowadays is quite eclectic! I take every opportunity to catch jazzers who come to the North of England, and whenever I am in London visiting jazz venues is at the top of my list for an evening out. I have found though little in what I’ve seen that has really moved me – technically the performances have been terrific but with regard to emotional involvement…

There have been notable exceptions; Erik Truffaz and Bumcello who I saw at the Jazz Café were both remarkably good, whilst Cachaito’s performance in Manchester was a musical highlight. Of the singers whom I have seen I was honoured to meet Marion Montgomery during the Scarborough Jazz Festival at the end of 2002 and her performance was masterful. I was heart-broken to hear of her recent death. She was a great, great singer.

Other musicians I admire are John Martyn (his version of ‘Strange Fruit’ is a killer), Warren Zevon (great lyricist), Ben Harper, Leonard Cohen.

Q. Has growing up in Russia influenced you musically? Is your style ‘Russian’?

A. It’s difficult for anyone in the West to imagine growing up in a world devoid of ‘pop’ music – that is music made by and for young people. But that’s exactly the situation I was in. And I suppose this is why, when I first came to England, that I was attracted to jazz – it was the nearest thing to the Romance songs I so much enjoyed singing when I was a young girl in Russia.

Also because musical education in Russia emphasises the technical aspects of performing, I was comfortable with the unusual time patterns and figures of jazz.

Probably though, to most people listening to my music the most discernably Russian thing about my style will be my accent – I still have trouble with the casual pronunciation used in Western singing – and my occasional lapse into Russian. I’m particularly pleased to have been able to incorporate a Lermontov poem into my interpretation of Bill Wither’s ‘Use Me’.

But without doubt the most important thing that my Russian background has given me has been a chance to think dispassionately about jazz and to be objective about the ‘givens’ of jazz-lore. Coming to jazz, as I did, as a fully-formed musical adult I had no preconceptions about jazz, no inhibitions about how jazz should be performed and no knowledge or interest in what was U or Non-U about jazz. I wasn’t shackled by the jazz-police. I do whatever feels and sounds right. That’s the major Russian influence on my music – objectivity and irreverence. A terrific gift from my Motherland.

Q. Its been said that you have to be seen live to appreciate how you are challenging traditional attitudes to jazz. Why?

A. Jazz to anyone under 35 has serious negative connotations. It’s perceived as boring.

Doing standards as most jazz singers and musicians do, it’s a narrow line between interpretation and imitation. I know because I’ve been there and done it. A lot of jazz performance borders on ‘tribute’ and that’s almost pastiche – recreating in preference to creating. The music I’m doing today may not be jazz as jazzophiles perceive jazz but at least it’s alive and kicking. I’m not into musical necrophilia!

But to most people my music will be perceived as ‘jazzy’. As a result there are entrenched prejudices to be overcome and this is difficult. So what I’m aiming for in live performances is to make sure that anyone under 35 who comes to my gigs see no difference in presentation between what I am doing and what a rock band would do. My gigs will have the same energy, the same power, the same attitude, the same ability to lift people as a rock act, – so the audience will be able to judge the music on even terms.

Jazz isn’t sexy, but it can be, it must be, it will be!

Q. Who do you see as your perspective audience?

A. Anyone who is interested in intelligent, challenging music.

Anyone into jazz who thinks the modern crop of singers are bland and have nothing to say.

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