‘Alchemy’ Album Review

Alchemy2 (1)Have you ever heard one of New Zealand’s iconic pop songs and wondered how it would sound reimagined as Jazz? The journey from popular song to Jazz piece is a well-trodden path. Many tunes that we now refer to as ‘Jazz standards’ began their life as tunes written for broadway musicals or for the popular music market. For a tune to successfully cross that divide it needs to be well constructed and to lend itself to reharmonisation. With ‘Alchemy’, this elusive symmetry is realised.

In the late twentieth century, classic Beatles tunes or those of Michael Jackson, Prince and Stevie Wonder were effortlessly adapted as Jazz vehicles. If you hear Uri Caine, Brad Mehldau, Herbie Hancock or the Kiwi Jazz pianist Jonathan Crayford playing ‘Blackbird’ you might conclude that Blackbird was written with a Jazz pianist in mind. These crossovers are a tribute to the composer and to the transformational skills of arranging Jazz Musicians. Alchemy2 (3)

A few years ago the award-winning New Zealand writer/director/producer Mark Casey embarked on an ambitious project to recast a number of New Zealand’s best-loved pop songs as Jazz tunes. It was a significant and perhaps a risky undertaking but gradually the project gathered momentum. In mid-December, ‘Alchemy’ was released and immediately, it rose up the NZ music charts. This is a significant achievement but it is not down to Casey alone. His masterstroke was engaging leading New Zealand Jazz Pianist Kevin Field as the Musical Director. Field is not only a gifted Jazz Pianist and acknowledged Warner recording artist, but his skills as an arranger and vocal accompanist are beyond question. Creative New Zealand came to the party and backed the proposal.

As the project moved forward a variety of Kiwi Jazz musicians were approached, some working in New York, most local, and one by one they came aboard. When the album was about to be recorded, I was asked by Field and Casey if I would be interested in witnessing the recording process. I was. I seldom pass up a chance to become a fly-on-the-wall during recording sessions and this project fascinated me. Being an embedded observer in such situations is always intriguing. It affords a writer the opportunity to gain insights that would otherwise be invisible. As the musicians turned up to rehearsals and to recording day there was a palpable sense of enthusiasm. No one questioned Fields guidance as he tweaked the charts and made suggestions. And any sense of disconnect between the pop and Jazz world evaporated swiftly. This was not pop Jazzed up. It was Jazz, and although there were reharmonisations and Jazz rhythms, the integrity of original tunes remained intact.

In the recording studio were Auckland’s premier Jazz and Soul singers and a selection of experienced Jazz instrumentalists. On vocals were Caitlin Smith, Lou’ana Whitney, Chelsea Prastiti, Allana Goldsmith, Bex Peterson and Marjan Nelson. On piano and keyboards was Keven Field, Roger Manins was on tenor saxophone, Richard Hammond on electric and acoustic bass, Michael Howell on acoustic and electric guitar, Ron Samsom and Stephen Thomas on drums and percussion. In addition, there were two special guests, Michael Booth (trumpet) and Nathan Haines (soprano saxophone). This was serious firepower and thanks to the arrangements, all well deployed. The NY based ex-pat bass player Matt Penman had arranged tracks 7 & 12 and Marjan co-arranged tracks 4 & 8 with Field. Alchemy2

There are six vocalists on the album and they sing two tunes each. Careful thought had obviously been given to who would sing each song because the strengths of the individual vocalists were well matched to the tunes. For example, the warm but wistful lyricism of Chelsea Prastiti paired with ‘I’m glad I’m not a Kennedy’ (Shona Laing), the heartfelt reflectiveness of Caitlin Smith with ‘I hope I never’ (Tim Finn) or the engaging bell-like clarity of Marjan singing ‘Brown girl’ (Aradhna Patel). Together the musicians delivered something unique. This is a project which works and the more you listen to it the more you are beguiled. It is Kiwiana and it could be the perfect soundtrack for your summer.

‘Alchemy’ the album is available in New Zealand stores or from online sources. 

Emma Gilmartin & James Sherlock

Gilmartin Sherlock.jpgI was barely off the plane and my brain was full of dense fog, no doubt a legacy of San Francisco Karl who had been circling me like a spectre for a good month. I gamely fought the malaise off and because I am a creature of habit, dutifully made my way down to Auckland’s CJC Creative Jazz Club. In my experience, it pays never to miss a live improvised music gig, because if you do, you risk bitter regret. Believe me, I often lie awake lamenting a missed chance to see John McLaughlin. 

Last week the Australian Duo, Emma Gilmartin and James Sherlock were on the bill accompanied by Christchurch Bass player Michael Story and Wellington drummer Mark Lockett. Lockett, who helped organise the tour, is a mainstay of the Wellington Jazz scene and offshore musicians like this arrive due to the skilful tour-on-a-shoestring wrangling of his ilk. We get to hear these Aussie, European and American bands in our New Zealand Jazz clubs, largely because of the work put in by a handful of dedicated musicians like Roger and Caro Manins (and Lockett). These organisers pitch in uncomplainingly as they lock down the events and we benefit as a result. Consequently, New Zealand has developed a rich improvised music circuit and a debt of gratitude is owed to the organisers (and to the volunteers who quietly assist). 

Emma Gilmartin is a Melbourne based vocalist, composer and teacher and it was her first time performing in Auckland. She has received praise from the Australian music press and is one of an increasing number of gifted vocalists emerging out of the Australian Jazz scene. She is pitch-perfect and her appealing voice finds the corners of a room with ease. Like all good Jazz vocalists, she imparts a mood of engaging intimacy. Her co-leader on this tour, was guitarist James Sherlock, a notable musician and the perfect foil for a vocalist. An accompanist who understands how to enhance vocal performance by offering challenges and he knows how to comp without getting in the way. He is a gift to any vocalist.  On solos, he also excels, at times bringing to mind earlier greats like an Oscar More (behind Nat Cole). Christchurch Bass player Michael Story rounded off the quartet nicely and it was obvious that he was enjoying himself. Again, he was the right person for the ensemble.

The program was a mix of tasteful standards and interesting originals. I have put up a clip which demonstrates the strengths of the quartet – witness the tasteful musicality of Lockett’s drum solo as the band digs into a swinging version of ‘Nica’s Dream’ by Horace Silver.  Gilmartin appeared to be relishing her time in New Zealand and she announced that she would try and return next year. We hope so.

Emma Gilmartin (vocals), James Sherlock (guitar), Michael Story (bass), Mark Lockett (drums). The gig took place at Anthology, K’Road, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 4 December 2019

Talbot/Dunbar-Wilcox @ CJC

Emerging Artists (Wellington) Talbot-Dunbar (1)

As Wednesday nights at the new Anthology venue move into high gear, a tried and trusted CJC programming philosophy remains constant. To provide a quality venue for local and international musicians to showcase their original projects, and to provide a performance space that up and comers can aspire to. As before, two or three gig slots are kept for emerging artists, and this year those slots have expanded to include Wellingtonian and Christchurch improvisers. Performing on Wednesday were Wellington musicians Frank Talbot and Ella Dunbar-Wilcox. Both sets had the same rhythm section; pianist Kevin Field, Bassist Cam McArthur, and drummer Adam Tobeck.

First up was Frank Talbot. A tall tenor player with a clean tone and nimble articulation. Talbot is a recent graduate of the New Zealand School of Music and he is currently completing his honours degree. New Zealand produces many good tenor players and judging by Talbot’s confident performance on Wednesday, he will go from strength to strength. He is certainly making all of the right moves and testing himself in varied situations, so he will certainly be one to watch.  On his setlist, there were all originals and I have posted his interesting tune ‘Inquisition’. I also liked ‘Intervalic’ and a moving tune (which I heard as) ‘Steak and kidney pies, no goodbyes’. The latter was dedicated to his mother who is going through very tough times health wise. A nice heart-felt tribute. Talbot-Dunbar

The second set featured Ella Dunbar-Wilcox. A vocalist in her third year of studies (also at the New Zealand School of Music). Her performance showed considerable maturity as she tackled some challenging arrangements and tunes. Not many emerging vocalists would tackle the more upbeat Coltrane tunes or a tricky stop-start McLorin Salvant arrangement. She navigated these charts with ease. I also liked the balance in her set list which provided us with pleasing contrasts. The cheerful, upbeat (and rarely heard) Bobby Timmons number ‘That There’. This followed her own ballad ‘Lonely Eyes’.  Then there was ‘Night Hawks’, a reference to the Edward Hopper painting and capturing perfectly that sense of isolation and ennui.  I have put up her interpretation of ‘I didn’t know what time it was’.

Engaging a quality local rhythm section for both sets was a sensible move. Field, McArthur, and Tobeck are adept accompanists and used to working with unfamiliar musicians. And more importantly, all have worked extensively with vocalists. This draws upon very different skills and in this regard especially, Field is superb.

Frank Talbot (tenor saxophone)

Ella Dunbar-Wilcox (vocals)

Rhythm Section: Kevin Field (piano), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Adam Tobeck (drums) The gig was for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) @ Anthology, K’Road, Auckland, 3 July 2019 

Kate Wadey @ CJC Auckland

Wadey

Australia produces some fine vocal talents and Kate Wadey certainly fits that category.  Her relative youth is contrasted by a stylistic maturity and when she sings you are transported. She has a way of engaging an audience and of personalising a story. It is a communicated sincerity, a something of herself that hangs in the air as the notes fall. She makes it look easy, but I doubt that mere happenstance lies behind her skilled delivery. It was the little things that caught my attention; the flashed smile during a lyrical punch line as if inviting you to share in a hidden aside. The way she moved from coy to world-weary in an instant – changing the pronunciation of certain vowels or consonants to good effect – and occasionally leaning back on a word.  Holding it just long enough for its import to hit home.

Many vocalists sing ‘The Great American Songbook’ but with such universally loved and familiar tunes, choices must be made with care.  Picking a few favourites and belting them out will only set you among the pack. To add distinction a fresh interpretation is needed. These days that means a reharmonisation or taking an angular approach to the tune. There is another way, however. Make the tunes your own while still approaching them in a traditional way. This is where superior storytelling skills and subtle vocal mannerisms come into play. The ability to inject freshness while referencing the best of what has gone before. She did this, not by mimicking the greats but by communicating the essence of what made those versions timeless. 

As if to underscore this I found myself thinking of Anita O’Day and June Christy. It’s not that Wadey sounded like either, but there they were, living inside her delivery.  That flash of vulnerability in a sideways glance, the vibrato-less hard hitting clean tone, The sass, the time feel, the supreme confidence – it is hard to put into words but it was all there without being overt.  

The other strength was the way the setlist was put together.  Both sets were opened with guitarist Peter Koopman playing instrumental originals. A good warm-up for what was to follow, Wadey launching into a spirited ‘East of the Sun, (and West of the Moon)’ or the lesser known standard, ‘There’s a Lull in my Life’, which was lush and beautiful. After that a composition of her own ‘The Moon Song’ – followed by a stunning rendition of ‘The Song is You’.  It could be risky to perch such beautiful standards on each side of an original but the standards were as much enhanced by ‘The Moon Song’ as the converse.  The last song in the first set, while from the ‘Songbook’, is seldom sung. What a great tune it is; ‘Nobody Else But Me’ (Kern/Hammerstein), and how clever to eliminate verses from the original. In doing this the song was modernised and brought into line with modern sensibilities without needing to change a word.  She also achieved this in the second set with ‘Sweet Loraine’ – singing it woman to woman – earlier referencing the belated passing of the same-sex marriage legislation in her country.  

On tour with her, was expat New Zealander Peter Koopman and it was good to see him in this role. Koopman is popular here and although we have seen him in many guises, never as vocal accompanist. With a musician as accomplished as this, it is a good test to see how they perform in a supportive role. Koopman was superb – never once making it about him and giving the vocalist exactly what she needed – pushing when required of him and fitting gorgeous chords neatly beneath the lyrics.  On bass was Sydney musician Samuel Dobson, alternating between standard playing and arco to good effect, a long time musical associate of Wadey’s.  Local musician Stephen Thomas was on drums and as superb as always. A duo number featured Wadey and Thomas doing ‘Goody, Goody’ (Maineck/Mercer) was a treat.  I will put that up on YouTube shortly – I have posted a cut of ‘Nobody Else But Me’ with this post.  There are a number of very good YouTube clips of Wadey but I highly recommend that you purchase her albums.  ‘Moon Songs’ & ‘A Hundred Years From Today’. 

Wadey (vocals, compositions), Peter Koopman (guitar), Samuel Dobson (bass), Stephen Thomas (drums). The gig was at Backbeat for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 24 April 2019Kate Wadey

Lou’ana (Whitney) @ CJC Auckland

Lou'ana (2)Lou’ana is a vocalist on route to wider recognition. During the last few years she has been performing at festivals throughout the country and she is billed to appear at the Waiheke Jazz Festival this month.  He vocal style has general appeal as it blends elements of Jazz, Soul, and Funk. Her smokey nasal intonation and back on the beat phrasing carry echoes of Amy Winehouse.  Out of this brew comes a sound that is recognisably her own and it is refreshing to see how comfortable she is with that. At the CJC gig, an opener for her tour, she had wisely chosen the material which favoured her preferred register, rather than trying to dazzle with pointless pyrotechnics. In her case, vocal-gymnastics would be quite superfluous as her well-chosen phrasing and smouldering delivery give her plenty to tell a story with.   

The first set was mostly her favourite standards; often songs that she had heard as a child when her musical family played them for her (e.g. ’Just Squeeze Me’). Her approach to Autumn leaves was particularly interesting as she sang it in Samoan – the challenge being, that there is no Samoan word for Autumn. Her linguistic translation flowed beautifully and the essence of the tune transcended all mere words.  I know that her biggest audience lies elsewhere, but I hope that she will keep working on these Jazz tunes. A smokey voice and a Jazz standard belong together. During the first set, she was accompanied on piano by special guest Kevin Field (and for the last number of that set joined by her regular guitarist Jason Herbert).  Field is arguably New Zealand’s premier Jazz piano accompanist and I could detect his arranging skills in at least one piece.

The second set contrasted the first as it featured a funkier, rockier selection. These are the tunes that undoubtedly please her wider audience. In spite of that, they also pleased her Jazz audience. Who can resist a Hendrix number done well? Especially when the vocalist slams out the opening bars on guitar before giving us a Janis Joplin like rendering of the tune. Who can resist a homespun ‘viper’ song with its Waller like lyrics or a soulful funk number accompanied by soaring guitar, organ and gut-punchy bass lines?  Her bass player was the ever popular Cam McArthur, who switched from upright to electric bass for the second set. Both sets featured drummer Cam Sangster – a versatile drummer, equally at home in the popular funk, Indie rock, and Jazz worlds.

Her first set was great but she visibly relaxed into the music during her second set. Perhaps because of the familiar material and because she had her regular keyboards player and guitarist with her.  These two players, along with Sangster have been alongside her for much of the journey. On keyboards and organ was Dillon Rhodes and with more than a hint of the rock god, Jason Herbert on guitar. Together they had a great sound and one that I suspect will endure over time. The audience however never took their eyes off Lou’ana. She has an allure, and her charm on stage will serve her well as she gains wider recognition.

Lou’ana (vocals, compositions), Kevin Field (piano), Cam McArthur (electric & upright bass), Cam Sangster (drums), Dillon Rhodes (keys & organ), Jason Herbert (guitars),  The gig was at the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Backbeat, Auckland, 27 March 2019

Vivian Sessoms CJC 2018

Vivian (3)When the Soulful vocalist Vivian Sessoms visited in June last year, we were stunned by her voice and by her powerhouse delivery. We seldom get to experience American R & B styled vocalists in New Zealand and if we do we never see them in intimate settings like the Backbeat Bar. Her voice carries the history of her music and her vocal range and control are approaching the operatic. Sessoms is a vocalist with serious chops and an interesting backstory. Last week she returned.

Since her last visit, she has released a Soul/Jazz album titled ‘Life’. The album is receiving favorable attention and it is not surprising that she has been picked up by the Ropeadope recording label. During her two Auckland gigs, she performed a number of tunes from the album; including a few that were recorded at the same time and will likely appear on a future release. The first set opened with her take on the Stevie Wonder classic ‘I can’t help it’. This was pure R & B, but the set swiftly dived into bold reharmonisations of Jazz standards plus one or two pop tunes (‘Love is a losing game’ – Amy Winehouse and ‘Under the Cherry Moon’ – Prince). Vivian (1)

The Standards in that set were the lovely ‘Stella by Starlight’ (Victor Young), ‘Lush Life (Billy Strayhorn) and ‘The Waters of March’ (Tom Jobim). All of the above were reharmonised and made fresh. ‘Lush Life’ conveyed that sad world-weary vibe that Strayhorn penned so well and ‘The Waters of March’ (Aguas de Marco) was sung in English.  Jobim wrote both the Portuguese and the English lyrics and the song is a masterpiece. Sessoms infused it with a subtlety reflecting modern American life. When she came to the line ‘the shot of a gun, in the dead of the night’ you picked that up immediately and understood her message.Vivian (4)

Sessoms is an activist for civil rights and this thread runs through all of her shows (and the ‘Life’ album).  Last time she came to New Zealand it was her ‘I can’t breathe’ number – this time it was her take on ‘People (make the world go round)’, a tune made popular by the Stylistics  (composed by Thom Bell + Linda Creed). Before the tune, she spoke a little of her life growing up in Harlem and how normalised that daily struggle was to African-American people at that time. This tune in her hands was a plea for people to do better and to fight on until equality is a reality, not just a distant hope. An interesting song choice which got the Sessoms treatment was ‘I who have nothing’. We associate it with Shirley Bassey or Joe Cocker but long before that Ben E King released it. Actually, it is an old Italian song titled ‘Uno Dei Tanti’ (by Carlo Denida).

This time Sessoms had her husband Chris Parks touring with her. Parks is a well-known bassist and producer on the New York scene and on the album, he is co-credited in all of the arrangements. Parks played a punchy electric bass, Jonathan Crayford and Ron Samsom were the band members for this gig, Crayford having accompanied her convincingly last time she came.

The album is widely available and I have included a Spotify clip from ‘Life’. Her take on Strange Fruit is the standout for me. A harrowing song based on the poem by Abel Meeropol and made famous by Billie Holiday. In light of recent comments made during the US primaries and on the banners of the Alt-Right, these issues are scandalously still with us. I have also put up a clip from the gig – ‘Waters of March’ (the sound quality is quite good but the glare of the spotlights affected the focus slightly in places).

Life Tour: Vivian Sessoms (vocals), Chris Parks (electric bass), Jonathan Crayford (keys), Ron Samsom (drums) – Backbeat Bar for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 22nd November 2018).

 

Lauren Nottingham Tour

 Whenever a young and talented vocal improviser appears on the scene, it piques the interest of Jazz lovers and beyond. Lauren Nottingham fits this bill perfectly and she is definitely someone we should take notice of. She is bound to have an upwards career trajectory over the coming years and with the talented pianist Mark Donlon as a collaborator, this is all the more assured. She has previously toured as co-leader with Donlon, but this time she stepped out as sole leader.

The setlist was a mixture of original compositions and reharmonized standards from well outside of the Jazz songbook; David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Stole The World’ and The Beatles ‘Lady Madonna’ (McCartney). Both of the latter went down well. There were also a number of compositions by a singer-songwriter Matt Sagen and above all Nottingham’s own offerings. We also heard a tune by her drummer and one by Donlon. Her satirical ‘You can’t spell triumph without Trump’  and ‘Who you are’ felt personal while the composition ‘On a rooftop in China’, composed by drummer Dexter Stanley-Tauvao had a delightfully swinging feel to it. I have posted Donlon’s tune titled ‘Sarabande’ (Nottingham wrote the lyrics for this).  This was a nice band all round with tasteful playing from Beernink and Stanley-Tauvao.

Nottingham began singing publically at around the age of fourteen and before long she was singing in the National Youth Choir. She always had an interest in Jazz and in her senior year won a competition run by the NZSM. Later she completed a Jazz Studies degree with the NZSM. Following that she spent a year in Berlin, where according to her bio, she worked in a Jazz bar and did a lot of listening. For any developing artist, moving out of their comfort zone is important as academic learning is only a starting point; character and authenticity arise from life experience. The harder won and the greater the risks the better the stories. Nottingham through composition and her vocal interpretations has tales to tell us and her original approach is already evident.

Some time ago I heard a different tune by Donlon also titled ‘Sarabande’. I particularly love this latter one, as in Nottingham’s hands, the tune conveys a crystalline and even a lachrymose quality – entirely fitting for the wistful sarabande; that slow dance beloved of Baroque composers and with ancient Spanish origins. My only complaint about the gig – I hope that we get more wordless vocalising next time – we love her doing this (ref. her work with Mark Donlon’s Shadowbird Quartet).

The Band: Lauren Nottingham – leader, vocals, Mark Donlon – piano, Chris Beernink – bass, Dexter Stanley-Tauvao – drums. The gig took place at The Backbeat Bar for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), November 14, 2018.