The first time you hear Paul Jost’s new album Simple Life you think, “Who is this guy?” He sings with quirky phrasing. He sometimes talks and often whispers. He also wails, like when he scats across “Blackbird” in a headlong dash. His mannerisms are disarming because he is so believable. He sounds real. His lived-in, slightly frayed voice belongs to someone who has been around the block.
Jost, now 57, has been a professional musician (primarily a drummer) since he was 12. His long list of former employers includes Billy Eckstine and Dr. John. He is a composer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist, and teacher. His compositions have appeared in advertising jingles and also on recordings by Carl Perkins and the Band.
He says, “Singing has always been part of me but it wasn’t how I presented myself. I might sing on a gig if somebody asked me to come up and do a duet or something. But in the last five or six years, singing has felt like a natural progression, part of my journey. When we’re young we’re eager to show our independence, how different we are. As we get older I think we become more aware of how similar we are. I’m looking to connect with people now.”
Jost’s solo vocal debut came in 2014with Breaking Through. It was an intriguing record, but Simple Life is a stronger statement. The band is Jost’s tight working quartet, now together two years: Jim Ridl (piano), Dean Johnson (bass), Tim Horner (drums). Vibraphonist Joe Locke contributes, memorably, to four tunes. Only two of the 13 tracks are Jost compositions. The others come from the Great American Songbook, jazz, folk, and pop. Some are unusual choices. “I want the lyrics to a song to trigger some kind of life experience that I can relate to,” Jost says. “I have done some acting, and I look for a backstory, like actors do. Only the actor knows the backstory, but the audience feels it.”
“Everybody’s Talkin’,” composed by Fred Neil, was made famous by Harry Nilsson in the soundtrack to the film Midnight Cowboy. The lyrics have always been ambiguous. (Back in the day, some people wondered what the song had to do with the film.) Jost imagines his own movie for “Everybody’s Talkin’,” a movie about someone in the early stages of mental unraveling. He says, “My writing now often takes the form of arranging.” The arrangement, with Johnson’s ominous bass ostinato and Jost’s disembodied spoken words, is chilling.
“The Touch of Your Lips,” normally a quiet, heartfelt ballad, is also contrarian. Jost burns on it and blows. He sounds effortless when he scats, with a blend of energy and precision may reflect his background as a drummer. “Girl from the North Country” is Bob Dylan’s simplest, most poignant love song; Jost’s phrasing creates new hesitations in its flow, and his world-wise voice reveals new textures of emotion. His version of “Shenandoah” simply lingers on the beauty of the song, with rapt interludes by Ridl, Johnson, and Jost on harmonica.
“As a sideman I got to see some great singers firsthand: Mark Murphy, Billy Eckstine, Sylvia Syms, Morgana King,” he says. “I liked the stylists. They found a way to tell the story.”
As for his gentle interpretation of “The Folks Who Live on the Hill,” Jost says, “All the songs are there for a reason. I’m going to be a grandfather for the third time. The lyrics are just a storyline from my life. They’re saying, ‘If you stick with me, we might make this journey together. Maybe we’ll build a house on a hill and have a family.’ In my life, thank God, things have kind of turned out that way.”