Conal Fowkes: Woody ‘n’ Me

Conal Fowkes at pianoVersatile doesn’t even begin to cover the nature of Conal Fowkes’s music career. The New York-based 46-year-old comes to the Edinburgh Jazz Festival next week to play numerous solo piano sets and function as pianist, music director and arranger on a First World War-themed concert, but his CV spans classical to Cuban music, and his jazz piano talents range from Harlem stride to hard bop. Oh, and he also plays the bass. Indeed, it was on that instrument that he landed the gig that indirectly led to his playing being featured on Woody Allen’s two most recent films, Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine, and his soon-to-be-released Magic in the Moonlight. And it’s his Woody Allen association which will undoubtedly draw the punters in to his numerous festival performances.

Fowkes, who was born in Zambia and grew up in Leicestershire, had not long moved to New York when, 15 years ago, he went to a gig by a traditional jazz band. During a break, he got talking to the group’s banjoist, who had spotted the young Fowkes amongst the rather more senior audience. The banjo player was Eddy Davis, and, after being impressed by Fowkes’s enthusiasm for the music, he invited him to sit in on a couple of tunes – on piano. After the gig, Fowkes mentioned that he also played bass – and, lo, it turned out there was a vacancy in the band Davis played with on a Monday night at the Café Carlyle. Little did Fowkes know that the band was led by clarinettist and filmmaker extraordinaire Woody Allen. For five years, he played bass in Allen’s band before switching to piano when that chair became empty.

What was Fowkes’s first impression of Allen? “I met him on the bandstand and he’s a man of very, very few words so it’s not like we had a conversation – or  a ‘hey, how you doing? Who are you?’. Nothing like that. I think maybe he smiled in my direction, and we just played the gig. I’m sure I was nervous – it was quite a high-profile gig – but it was a lot of fun, and he’s so laid-back that he puts you at your ease anyway. There’s not a lot of tension around.”

When he met Allen, Fowkes wasn’t particularly knowledgeable about his work. “I didn’t know a lot of his films – I’ve obviously gotten in to them more and more over the years working with him.” Is he not terribly critical of his own playing? “He is very critical of himself but he’s very complimentary and full of praise for his sidemen. I’ve heard him say many many times that he would much rather play music than make films; he much prefers being on the bandstand than on the set but he then goes on to say that he’s not good enough to make a living as a musician –he puts himself down all the time. But he loves playing more than anything.

“Just to give you an idea, when he made Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Eddy Davis and I managed to find a location in Barcelona to play – the two of us as a duo – just so that Woody could drop in and play when he felt like it. We had nothing to do with the film: it was just because he was going to be there…  He was shooting a full schedule, Monday to Friday, 9-5 – or if it was a night shoot the same kind of hours in the evening – and he would come directly from the set three or four nights a week, and play for about three hours without a break. And I mean without even going to his hotel and taking a shower, you know; just coming straight to play with us. I think he needs it and desires it so much, it means so much to him. It must help him unwind.”

The first Allen film that Fowkes played on was 2010’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger – all that was used was a tiny clip of Fowkes, Davis and Allen himself in what must have been the first time he played clarinet on his own soundtrack since Sleeper (1973).

The Midnight in Paris gig came out of the blue. Fowkes explains: “One Monday, we had just finished our regular gig and he turned to me and said ‘Hey, I need you to record some songs for my next film’ – just casual like that. I had to sing and play the piano for the actor playing Cole Porter to mime to – not that I knew that at the time. I’m not much of a singer – though thankfully neither was Cole Porter! He gave me the three songs that he wanted, booked a studio for me, and all he said was ‘Don’t play them jazzy, just play the songs. Just think you’re at a party playing and singing a song.’ So off I went completely confused and a little bit nervous, and I recorded them. I got a message saying everything was just as he wanted, and he used it all. I think I just was lucky that it fit what he wanted.”

Fowkes was drafted into Blue Jasmine at the last minute. The film had been made and they were looking for a version of Blue Moon. Allen tried a recording that he had used for a previous film, but it didn’t fit the images so he asked Fowkes to record a new version – again with virtually no remit. “It’s so frustrating. I’ve heard actors saying the same thing about his directing. The thing is: I see him all the time and I would like for him to know I’ll do it any way he wants because what I don’t want to happen is he says ‘Can you do this?’ and I record it and it’s not right, and he doesn’t want to tell me it’s not right – and stops asking me.”

Magic in the Moonlight sees Allen return, musically anyway, to Kurt Weill. And, again, Fowkes has no idea how much of Bilbao Song or Mack the Knife will have made it into the final edit. Still, it means that some wonderful Weill can be included in his Woody Allen-themed concert next Thursday. It’s not the first time that one of Woody Allen’s favourite pianists and collaborators has headlined the Edinburgh Jazz Festival – his longtime music director Dick Hyman (now 87) was a regular visitor to the festival in the 1980s – so it’s surely can’t be long before the movie maestro materialises himself…

* Conal Fowkes – Woody Allen and Jazz, Tron Kirk, Thursday July 24. For information on this and his other concerts, visit www.edinburghjazzfestival.com

First published in The Scotsman on Monday, July 14th

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