Jill Jack is one of my longest held and best friendships in music. She sang with me in the early 90s, when both of us were taking the first broad, uncertain steps toward solo careers. Since then we’ve worked together not infrequently, been proud parents of kids at the same school (not parents of the same child, but hey it’s all a blur), and been friends and fans of each other’s work. We essentially have the same job—principal songwriter in a large band bearing our own name, which makes you de facto bandleader, conceptual visionary, reluctant employer, and automatic arbiter of musician’s complaints and frets. So we’ve had a lot of vocational issues to talk through and laugh about through the years.
If you’re reading this anywhere in Michigan, you’re likely aware that Jill needs no further explanation. She’s won, like two thousand Detroit Music Awards (actually 24 and counting), and has built an audience based on eclectic, intense and genuine live performances. Genuine is the defining term here. I’ve known few performers with less conflict between who they are on stage and off than Jill Jack. You get all of her in a performance, and then some.
Jill has also released several lovely cds in the past that fall loosely in the alt-country category to a lot of fans, but were always rock records with country leanings to my own ears. Love Hotel was one such terrific record, built on poetic metaphors and Jill’s clear, fetching voice. Her band has been a wonderful group for many years—Billy Brandt, himself an established folk artist and archivist, on guitar, mandolin and vocals; the brightly talented producer Nolan Mendenhall on bass; Ron Pangborn on drums, probably the finest drummer for songwriters and the specific idiosyncrasies of their songs in the Motor City; and pianist Dale Grisa, who has the talent, wisdom and restraint to approach songs with a sparse, melodic certainty.
All that musical experience and accomplished dexterity would be attenuated, however, if there weren’t compelling songs to sing and play. With her brand new cd/dvd, Songwriter Sessions, Jill delivers on the promise she’s been making to her adoring audiences in clubs and theaters for 15 years. It’s a record as brave as it is enjoyable. Jill, her band, and an extended group of musicians recorded all new material over two nights at the Hartland Music Hall in Hartland, Michigan in front of fresh audiences both nights. I’ve always loved Jill’s natural rapport with audiences, but she has had the guts here to forgo all spoken introduction to her songs and let them live or die on their own merits—a wise choice, and it succeeds with a shining warmth anyway.
The cd package is completed by a full length DVD concert film of the performances. It concludes with two bonus studio tracks, one of them being “Live Like There’s No Tomorrow.” I’d say if you want to know who Jill is as a person and artist, listen to this last song first, then move through the concert songs. It’s very difficult to complete a picture of your self, your world, and your music, a picture that your band and audience can understand and relate to, and Jill makes it sound easy with “Live Like There’s No Tomorrow.”
Writing, rehearsing and recording all unheard material with a large band is an enormous task and immense leap of faith, and Jill and her enhanced 9 piece band make it sound like it’s a well worn set, full of swampy rhythms, bluegrass harmonies, brilliant guitar and pedal steel playing and smart arrangements. Jill knows how to cast a band: Some of our area’s finest musicians help with this recording. Drew Howard on pedal steel and dobro, Jason Dennie on mandolin, Colin Linden on shimmering guitar parts, and Jen Sygit, Mark Iannace and daughter Emma Jack on vocals. As beautifully as it’s all sung and played, the material is crisply recorded and mixed by Neil Sever, Linden, Jason Fisher and Jim Kissling. Jill and her band will celebrate the release of Songwriter Sessions with a couple concerts this month--the first being January 9 at Callahan's in Auburn Hills, followed by a show January 15 at the Black Crystal Cafe in Ann Arbor.
But it’s Jill’s show. Where in the past her singing was a tug of war between Emmy Lou Harris and Dusty Springfield, or between a sweet, knowing country tone and a heartier soul delivery, she’s now firmly in control of her own tone and style. Her vocal command is buoyed by an understanding of her own melodic phrasing and the harmonic construction of her songs. Her songwriting has grown to seemingly include classic country (think Harlan Howard’s simplicity), traditional singer-songwriter stylings that she and I both grew up with (Joni Mitchell, acoustic Bob Seger, Bob Dylan) and even the sophisticated chord changes of Broadway giants Richard Rodgers or Cole Porter. The full effect is an artist and band in full bloom—a complete, sweet statement of living, loving and learning.
Songwriter Sessions is largely a quiet affair—intimate in its sound, seating and message. Where the songs were once built around Jill’s under-rated acoustic guitar playing, the rhythm section now delivers its own internal feel, swaying and grooving with Jill’s lyrics and, ultimately, her singing.
All 15 songs are tender, written and sung as affirmative maxims or detailed narratives—little movies for the ears. By keeping her arrangements unadorned and clean, Jill relies on her lyrics to carry the brunt of each song’s emotional tone. This further confirms what I meant by this record being brave—the lyric needs to be very much a part of life, and living, with each emotional detail carrying a sensory reality, something we can touch and see. No small feat, and it works. “My Heart’ll Never Be The Same” and “Child Within” exemplify this lyrical discipline the best, with “Tumbleweed” carrying on in the continuum of folk sing-alongs.
Jill’s music has matured to the point where many of her songs now sound obvious, i.e. they had to exist at some point. Almost like found melodies, or when you first hear a song and swear it should’ve been a song long before. It’s called connecting, and it’s the sign of a real artist, open to her own defeats, victories, hopes dashed, dreams fulfilled, her muse, her loneliness, her misplaced love, and her romantic successes. The songs carry those things we can’t easily discuss, one of art’s higher purposes.
It’s thrilling to hear another musician realize any artistic dream; when it’s a friend, it’s as inspiring as it is thrilling. In any scene, in any era, in any part of the world, there’s a tendency to forever catalogue someone where they were when you first discovered them. We change and grow and develop and become more than we were, however. We are not what we were when. Not always, anyway. If you want living proof of this premise, live with Jill Jack and her Songwriter Sessions for a few days.