Joe Mancuso was comfortably into the trappings of middle age — a wife and family, a house in the suburbs, his own internet marketing company — when he decided to make a dedicated return to singing and performing. It was a love that had been left to the side as adulthood encroached; Mancuso had attended Webster University on a vocal scholarship and studied in the university's storied jazz program, but focused more on audio engineering. So while he was intimately involved in the world of music, his day job was centered around its technical production, not his own performance.
It took a pair of family tragedies and a strong sense of carpe diem to a reawaken his passion for singing.
"My brother Sal, who was my partner in my recording studio, he passed away in 2009. It was a tragic accidental overdose," Mancuso says. "He was in a really low place in his life. It just ripped a big hole in the family. Then my brother Vince, who is my partner in my internet marketing business, had a child pass away months before his fourth birthday."
Mancuso set January 1, 2011, as a turning point; from then on, he was going to perform as much as he possibly could. A few weeks later, he was singing alongside pianist Tim Garcia in a Central West End wine bar. It is the rare New Year's resolution that has stuck.
"To shake myself out of a depression, I was gonna spend the rest of my time chasing something that I felt was worthwhile and that I wanted to do," he says. "I've been on a mission."
Mancuso specializes in intuitive, low-lit jazz vocalizations, and he plays regularly at local restaurants and bars with a few instrumental configurations. But since 2012, Mancuso has regularly partnered with celebrated guitarist Dave Black, a musician whose technical adroitness on the nylon string guitar is matched by his idiosyncratic sense of phrasing and melody. On Just the Two of Us, the duo found a way to enliven a selection of well-worn chestnuts. And while their performance can be cleanly categorized as jazz, Black and Mancuso dipped outside the Great American Songbook for inspiration.
"When you're playing out live and you're entertaining folks, good, quality American music covers are just appealing; they want to hear songs that they're familiar with or can identify with," says Mancuso. "For the first year I was just doing standards, and then I started adding pop songs to the repertoire."
For this record, that includes standards such as "Summertime" and "Witchcraft," as well as Ray Charles' "Unchain My Heart" and Van Morrison's "Moondance."
"For 'Moondance,' in the studio I decided I was tired of the way we were playing it, so we tried something different," says Mancuso. "Dave took this simplistic rhythm, kind of a drone rhythm that he started out with, and repeated that for a while, and I came in on top of it. We slowed it down, we expanded the lyrics and the melody and made it more expressive."
For his last album, Cut to the Chase, Mancuso recorded with a traditional jazz quintet and worked through a handful of jazz standards — "On Green Dolphin Street," "Autumn Leaves" — but as his duo work with Black evolved, the pair found themselves playing more pop and rock songs.
"Jazz standards are pop tunes; they're just not the quote-unquote 'pop tunes' most people identify; they were pop tunes of the '30s and '40s," says Mancuso. "So we started playing Motown and old rock & roll and stuff we really liked. We started adding Stevie Wonder and Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles."
Mancuso's melding of pop, rock and jazz traditions led to another recent collaboration with Black. Last year, the pair dedicated an evening at the recently shuttered Tavern of Fine Arts in tribute to Billy Joel, the million-selling artist that not many rock artists, to say nothing of jazzbos, readily claim as an influence.
"For some strange reason, Billy Joel is one of my biggest vocal influences —Sinatra and Billy Joel," Mancuso says. "If you were to smash those two styles together, I think that's what you might hear from me."
Black and Mancuso didn't tackle any of Joel's songs for this album, but even a cursory listen reveals their playfulness within these tunes. Black's fretwork on "Unchain My Heart" does a fine approximation of Ray Charles' orchestra, and he even manages to sneak in the riff to "Smoke on the Water" in the outro. Mancuso proves to be a relatively nimble performer who doesn't avoid letting go when the song calls for it.
"The thing that is the most appealing thing to do as a duo is take tunes and twist them, change them, make them our own," Mancuso says. "That's kind of what this record is."