Q&A: Sam Mickens on Jimmy Scott and Friday’s “How Deep is the Ocean?” tribute concert



Jimmy Scott and Sam Mickens

Jimmy Scott and Sam Mickens

Brooklyn-based singer/guitarist/composer Sam Mickens will be at LPR this Friday, July 25 for “How Deep is the Ocean?”, a concert in memory of the late, great jazz vocalist Jimmy Scott. We caught up with Mickens (who’ll be teaming up with drummer Mike Pride’s quartet From Bacteria to Boys for the tribute) and asked him a few questions about Scott and his music. Check out the Q&A below. While you’re at it, listen to Mickens’ Jimmy Scott playlist. And grab your tickets for Friday’s show.
LPR: When did you first hear Jimmy Scott?
Sam Mickens: Though in retrospect I know that I must have first heard him during the finale of “Twin Peaks” which I was, perhaps inappropriately, very intently watching as a small kid when it originally aired on TV, the first time that I remember hearing him with any cognizance was as a teenager voraciously scouring and listening to things in a used CD store. (remember those?) I saw his record Heaven, listened to it, and after a minute or so told the clerk that I believed they had the wrong CD in the styrofoam slot on the wall; like a lot of people my first reaction to Jimmy’s voice was that it definitely belonged to a woman. After being reassured that it was in fact the correct recording I believe I bought or stole the album and was subsequently set off on a life-altering and lifelong love affair with his incredible singing.
What drew you to his music?
Though it’s hard to remember so far back in specific detail, I think the same things that draw a great many people to his music–his voice is pure emotional energy–ecstatic, sorrowful, despairing, yearning, exulting. A lot of the qualities that I found really marked when I first heard him–the feminine register, the phrasing really unmoored from standard ideas of rhythmically relating to the changes, really melted away as I got deeper into his music and now all I hear is the sheer lightning bolt of emotional humanity that he was able to project. A lot of singers and artists talk about channeling the divine but I think he truly did in a way that none else ever has.
How did this tribute concert come together?
I felt really tenderly about his death, though obviously he had been in declining health for some time and was thankfully able to live a very long and prolific life. I think the only other artist death in my lifetime that had such a personal impact on me was Michael Jackson’s. So, I felt compelled to do a performance in honor and memory of Jimmy’s incredible talent and work; he made such an indelible impact on so many songs that he recorded and, for me, recorded the definitive versions of a lot of often-performed songs. I knew that my good friend and frequent collaborator Mike Pride was also an immense Jimmy fan, we’ve talked about him at length over the years, so I contacted him about putting the concert together and we’re very much looking forward to doing it at Le Poisson Rouge.
How has Scott influenced your own music?
I was very lucky to see him perform a couple times during a run at Jazz Alley in Seattle when I was about 17 or so. A teacher of mine was playing drums with him and was able to arrange for us to get in for free and, to this day, these performances are absolutely tied for the greatest show I’ve ever seen in my life. We sat at the edge of the stage very near the performance and I was completely emotionally overwhelmed. I started actually singing properly soon thereafter and I think he’s probably been my greatest single influence as a singer, just in terms of musical patience, in placing pure expression beyond any technical thought, and in always trying to reach for the highest emotional planes in the lyric.
Do you have some favorite Jimmy Scott records?
Jimmy Scott - Holding Back The YearsBecause it came out around the time that I first got into him and because it contains what I’d consider several of his most amazing recordings I am very partial to the album Holding Back The Years. I know it is not held in the highest regard amongst some of his fans as it’s a collection of pop covers and is in some ways produced more like a pop record, but I think it’s totally sublime and I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone checking him out for the first time. There was also an amazing episode of “Sessions at West 54th”(when hosted by David Byrne and airing on PBS) from the time of this record where he does several songs from it; I taped the episode when I was a kid (remember that?) and watched it over and over again; his “Slave To Love” is definitely one of my favorite performances of all time. For its spartan arrangements, weird mystical power and sheer height-of-his-powers vocal performances I am also extremely partial to The Source.
Anything else people should know about the concert on the 25th?
It will be an emotional night for all involved and I just hope we can honor his memory. See you there.

Jimmy Scott singing “Slave To Love”:

posted by John