Jesse Gannon plays a neat little trick on "Whatever," the opening track of his new self-titled EP, the singer and pianist's first release in five years. As the song opens he plays richly melodic jazz changes over an increasingly insistent and flurried rhythm section, but right at the halfway mark, the instrumental track is infused with his laconic but soulful vocals.
"I appreciate both sides of the coin," Gannon says of the song's mix of jazz composition and soul attitude. "I also liked how the electronic broth on the intro, the ambient rubato thing I did, turned out nicer than I thought it would. I always wanted to start a record like that."
That quick-change transition sets the scene for an album that mixes neo-soul vibes and jazz chops with Gannon's smooth vocals. It's a skillset he has developed as a solo artist and bandleader — his 2013 album Future Vintage was a solid introduction to his talents — but most weeks he keeps busy as an in-demand session player and music director. He often gigs with artists including Lamar Harris, Anita Jackson and Rev. Sekou.
Talking by phone on a recent Monday morning, Gannon is in the middle of a late breakfast at the Goody Goody Diner on the north side after a few hours of working as an Uber and Lyft driver.
"This might be the slowest January so far," Gannon says of his side work, noting that a busy holiday season in December usually leads to a fallow period. "It might have to do with the pendulous effect of my clientele. I have several singers in St. Louis that I play with, so I'm only busy depending on how often they're gigging."
A slow January gives him time to reflect on his new EP, as his solo project often takes a back seat to his other steady gigs. Not only does focusing on his own project take time away from other paid work, he sometimes finds it hard to place his output in the greater scene of St. Louis music.
"As far as my original project goes, there's no real scene for that in St. Louis, this straddle-y soul/jazz soulphistipop thing," Gannon says. "It's jazz, but most jazz musicians wouldn't call it jazz; I don't swing that hard."
That term "soulphistipop" is Gannon's own portmanteau, his word for his mix of soulful, sophisticated pop music. He cites legends like Quincy Jones, Curtis Mayfield and George Duke as influences and exemplars of the form, but plenty of the vibes on the new EP owe a debt to hip-hop and sample culture. Local emcee Thelonious Kryptonite guests on the track "Doctor Spin," and a host of local soul and jazz phenoms (Jharis Yokley and Dhoruba Shakur on drums, Teddy Brookins and Bob DeBoo on bass) support Gannon's work on acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes and analog synth.
"The Rhodes is one of the best sounds to ever occur to a human ear," he says of his beloved electric piano. "I just love it. Being that my foundation is a jazz vernacular, neo-soul comes out of that tradition."
A song like "Ecstacy," with its dreamy, slow-burn groove, may recall the more syrupy jams from the likes of Maxwell or D'Angelo, but eventually Gannon's vocals dissipate into the mist to allow the horn players a chance to marinate in the song's stair-stepping structure.
"I can write a tune that I might think is a good jazz tune, and then add lyrics to it and add a backbeat to it and pow!" Gannon says. "The goal was to put some sugar in the medicine and make something that is interesting and catchy."
While this is Gannon's first solo release in some time, he and his bandmates have honed the songs over the years with gigs at the Dark Room and through Gannon's role as a Kranzberg Arts Foundation artist-in-residence.
"Teddy has known the stuff for a while; so did Dhoruba," Gannon says of the material on the EP. "A lot of how I get arrangements is doing it live. That's sort of the tradition of the straight-ahead jazz world; everybody syncs into the groove.
"It also helps when the music means a lot to you; people seem to notice," Gannon says of choosing musicians to collaborate with. "I tend to surround myself with people who like me because I'm a narcissistic pig. Professionalism is important, but it's good to connect on a human level and not rely on professionalism alone."
That mix of razor-sharp chops and the hard-to-define quality of being a good hang is an alchemy that Gannon shoots for in his own project, and in his role as sideman and music director for other artists.
"I'm trying to make the show that I'm a part of as dope possible," Gannon says. "I got that from Miles Davis; if you hire the right people you don't have to say shit."