British vocal and keyboard ace Georgie Fame chuckles at the ironies of being a British jazz musician trying to make his mark in Europe, where he was born, and in the U.S., where jazz was born.
His 2000 album "Poet in New York" won the Academie du Jazz du France's award as the best vocal jazz album that year, yet he says he can't get a gig in Paris. And it is very hard to find "Poet" in the U.S., where it was recorded, without resorting to the Internet sales venues.
"It is bizarre. Unless you're with the major labels, the distribution scene is getting more and more difficult," said Fame. "The arteries are getting clogged. Everybody is making their own CDs -- so the distributors get confused, the stores get confused. They're developing computerized systems whereby if you didn't sell enough records of your previous release you don't get on the rack."
Fame burst onto the British R&B scene in the mid-1960s and has had high-profile worked over the past decade as the Hammond B-3 organ player with Van Morrison and ex-Rolling Stone Bill Wyman, both in the studio and on the road.
He prefers working in a jazz setting these days, including a three-week run at Ronnie Scott's, a London jazz club, and a brief U.S. tour with stops in New York, Boston, Madison, Wis., and Minneapolis.
"It is kind of working in reverse," Fame said. "I'm 60 years old now, and probably coming at it a bit late, but I'd love to get a bit more work here in the U.S. My American colleagues seem to want to get more work in Europe, to spread their wings, I guess."
He also calls his own shots as a recording artist. Several U.S. releases over the past 10 years on the Go-Jazz label that were made with U.S. sidemen pale in volume with his U.K. output.
"When I've got enough songs, new tunes, I feel I should have them documented. I just take my band into the studio and do them," Fame said. "I've got six releases on my own label available in the U.K. with limited distribution around Europe. I'm not worrying about distribution. I'm just building up my catalog and recording music when the occasion arises. I finance it and I get my money back fairly quickly. I'm not getting rich off it, but maybe my sons can capitalize on it later on."
While higher profile gigs, like the Ronnie Scott run, feature his septet, he performs more frequently in a family Hammond organ trio with his sons James on drums and Tristan on guitar.
Fame said he got hooked on jazz because of the same qualities he found in the blues and rock 'n' roll as a young lad. "It was that raw emotion and intensity," he said. "We get a tremendous burst when we're performing. We don't need any soft or hard drugs. We get a tremendous adrenaline rush doing what we do. I think that's probably what grabbed me when I heard it -- the musicality of jazz.
"What helped me to understand the intricacies and the intelligence of jazz, which I think is one of the highest artistic forms, was listening to great vocalese singers like King Pleasure and Jon Hendricks and Eddie Jefferson. Listening to those guys singing Charlie Parker solos or Clifford Brown solos. When I first heard Charlie Parker, it went straight over my head. When I heard King Pleasure and Jon Hendricks singing a Charlie Parker solo with lyrics, it helped me to understand the musicality of it. Then I could go back to what Bird played in the first place -- and then it made sense."
Fame's "Poet in New York" session, featuring tenor saxophonist Bob Malach, pianist David Hazeltine, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Louis Hayes, is one of the finest jazz vocal CDs released in this young millennium.
He wrote lyrics to Tadd Dameron's classic "On a Misty Night" and, in the grand vocalese tradition, put words to the classic Chet Baker trumpet solos on "It Could Happen to You" and "But Not For Me."
"I like to use my voice as another instrument," Fame said. "For me, it was a tremendous joy, almost a dream, to be standing up front next to Bobby Malach, using my voice with his tenor saxophone like a regular jazz quintet.
"The 'Poet in New York' album may have sounded like a revelation, but I've been performing like that in Europe for 20 to 30 years," he said. "I find my lyric writing is getting better and I'm pleased with it. It seems like a comfortable area for me to work in."
The tune "Yeh-Yeh," originally on a Mongo Santamaria album, became a major pop hit for Fame in the mid-1960s after he covered a Jon Hendricks version. Hendricks wrote the lyrics and first performed the vocal version at the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival.
His recent U.S. club tour gave him a chance to work again with Malach and Hazeltine, whose work Fame admires immensely.
"I'd like to bring the guys over to Europe next summer to play some of the festivals," Fame said. "I'm quite happy to keep puttering along. I only work with friends. I'm in a very enviable position to be able to do that."