With Billy Jenkins you always know where you are: the topic may be serious, but you're never more than a split-second from laughter.
After our telephone conversation about his new album, "I Am A Man From Lewisham" (VOTP Records) I realised that, somehow, with Jenkins this joyful co-existence of the completely earnest and the utterly absurd had been the starting point for everything. Jenkins never fails to make his point clearly, but he is also ever-ready with a quip, a gag, a pun.
As John L Walters wrote in 2000, Jenkins provides "the missing link between comedy improv and music improv: very British, and full of music and good humour."
It's not a comfortable kind of humour. Jenkins punctures, challenges, he's one of nature's subversives. And some people are bound to find that kind of laughter disorienting and disturbing. Which is probably the main point of it.
On politics, for example, Jenkins was straight up: "My entertainment comes from watching politicians. That's all they are. Professional politicians. They haven't experienced the real world."
On his role as an officiant at humanist funerals? "It's an avant garde gig."
His star sign? "Faeces."
Jenkins also has the deep habit of being the performer. He was doing it from an early age. He sang as a soprano with choirs in both Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral. His biography states that he was already a professional musician at 14. He'd done more than 700 gigs by the age of 21 with art rock band Burlesque. And then in the 80's there were 40 European shows playing with Ginger Baker's Nutters. "Whupping Clapton's arse" on Sunshine of Your Love, he used to claim.
But when we start talking about music, some deeply- held beliefs emerge: "Don't confuse light-headedness about music with irreverence. It's JOY."
Jenkins is also serious about his roles of mentor, teacher and bringer-on of young musicians. It's something of a calling. He had rehearsal studios in Wood Wharf in Greenwich in the 1980's where the Loose Tubes generation were always welcome. The band on "I am a Man.." contains musicians from many generations.
"Nathaniel Facey (saxophonist on the CD) is from my children's generation, I taught him at the Royal Academy of Music, I taught Gail Brand at Middlesex. I met (violinist) Dylan Bates when he was just 16 - we found we had a lot in common, starting with the same sense of humour." And what does working with younger musicians bring? "I can be crabby and mid-50's, but I do have the capacity to turn into a 15 year old."
I asked him about listening to music. Again, the strong beliefs emerge: "I can't stand background music of any kind. I listen to music with intensity."Like an X-Ray."
So what would be his desert island discs? I discover that this is the wrong question. "I don't listen to music on radio or TV. I can't stand the compression. We've become a tickbox obsessed society. It's assumed that perfection is the way forward. But it's the imperfections make humans an interesting species."
Musicians you admire, then? Jimmy Yancey. Roland Kirk. Charles Mingus. Thelonious Monk. Monk was remarkable. Only 70 compositions. Minimal thematic structure, like Satie.
So, is Muddy Waters the key influence, as I keep reading? "People misunderstand the Afro-American tradition coming from civil rights. Every British band used to treat it with blind reverence. They didn't understand there is also HUMOUR. Willie Dixon's records are humorous. Muddy Waters? Sometimes it's supposed to be ironic. It's got nothing to do with arty-farty chatter."
Each track of "I am a Man…" sets up a different infectious groove, opens the door for what Jenkins calls "collective polyphony."
Chris May’s review of the album carefully enumerates the range of styles on the eight tracks of the album : from a "stomping 12-bar blues" to…"London's music hall/Chas 'n' Dave tradition". …"a tuba-led oompah waltz" … "an up tempo r&b shuffle" a track "in the late 1950s Ray Charles band" tradition...."a barn dance knees-up"…"a Maghrebi folk tune"…"a Salvationist recruiting hymn"... another blues.
Which is not bad at all, for a journey which hardly strays outside the London SE13 postcode.
Finally, I ask Jenkins if he is a rebel. What's more important to him is individuality: "It's about being Billy. Why can't people be themselves?"
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