‘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. 

Caitlin Smith – The art of the gesture and the song

Caitlin Smith (2)Because the human voice is the most primal of instruments it has the capacity to engage in unexpected ways. When a skilled vocalist performs we watch as carefully as we listen. The merest inflection, micro pause or slurred note can captivate, but it is also the non verbal cues; the ones we assimilate subconsciously that draw us ever deeper inside the song. When Caitlin Smith sings you are hyper aware of the entire performance. Hers are not gigs where listeners drift away or endlessly fiddle with phones. The audience are as engaged as she is. That is her gift as a musician.Caitlin Smith (10)When Smith moves your attention moves with her. She will prance, dance, drop her head, pause for effect or sweep her hair back unexpectedly and all in service of the song. When you watch and listen to skilled performers like her (and they are few and far between) you discern a deeper truth. What appears extrovert can be something else. The actions and gestures are an act of losing oneself. This is the performers mask and behind it lies a certain vulnerability. When enough of this vulnerability informs the music we feel with them. Caitlin Smith (5)  During Smith’s performances there is a lot of interplay between band members. She is generous in her acknowledgements and genuinely appreciative of the musicians behind her – unlike some vocalists who make it very plain that this is all about them. She had two of her regular cohort with her, Kevin Field on piano and Oli Holland on bass. On drums was the talented Stephen Thomas and I had not seen him with Smith before. During the break I asked Thomas how he was enjoying the gig. His answer is worth repeating, as it illustrates the above points. Vocal artists who think disengaged equals cool might pick up a pointer here. “Working with Smith is perfect as you have so much to react to. Every gesture and look gives you new material to work with”. Caitlin Smith (4)Smith followed her usual pattern of alternating originals with standards. The set list moved between Jazz and singer song-writer soul. She only repeated one tune from last Decembers CJC gig and that was the lesser known Ellington Number “I like the Sunrise”. This is from Ellington’s ‘Liberian Suite’ performed and recorded first in 1947. The original featured Al Hibbler on vocals, soon followed by a Frank Sinatra version (also with the Ellington orchestra). More recently Kurt Elling recorded a version but all of the aforementioned are at a slower tempo. At the risk of committing heresy, I like the upbeat punch and swing of Smith’s version best. Caitlin Smith (8)The night was thoroughly enjoyable as I knew it would be, and with this rhythm section of Field, Holland and Thomas behind Smith that was guaranteed.

Caitlin Smith Quartet: Caitlin Smith (vocals, compositions, arrangements, percussion), Kevin Field (piano), Oli Holland (bass), Stephen Thomas (drums). The video is courtesy of Denis Thorpe

Caitlin Smith 2014

IMG_3770 - Version 2Caitlin Smith is a vocalist who can quickly put a smile on your face or shamelessly tug at your heart-strings.  She always finds a way to connect her audience to the essence of a song; deftly locating that illusive sweet spot.  While there is often power in her delivery, there is also remarkable subtlety. You could describe her voice in many ways; pitch perfect, having an almost operatic range, but there is much more to Smith than chops. In the parlance she owns each song she sings and embeds it with a uniqueness.  Like a seasoned saxophonist she tells beguiling stories in a distinctive way.  IMG_3756 - Version 2There is a well-worn cliché that vocalists hog the limelight and in truth many go through their careers with barely a reference to the musicians that they work with. Caitlin Smith is the opposite. You are left in no doubt that her gigs are a shared project as she interacts with band and audience, picking up on every nuance from either.  She works with a band as a vocalist should and she is comfortable giving them space to solo. There is a generosity of spirit about her persona and this manifests in the music.  I have also witnessed her solid support for emerging artists.  The ultimate litmus test for me, is that gifted improvising musicians enjoy playing in Caitlin Smith lineups.  IMG_3762 - Version 2While Smith is widely acknowledged as a gifted singer-songwriter, it is her Jazz repertoire that is turning heads of late.  Her performance with the AJO at the Tauranga Jazz festival won her many new fans.  She is a wonderful interpreter of Jazz standards and this aspect of her repertoire deserves critical attention. Her vocal gifts and incredible musicality thrive with this space; of particular note is the delightful way she plays with lyrics.  IMG_3776 - Version 2 (1)Smith is a natural performer and there is something wonderfully theatrical and engaging about her stage presence. This gives her gigs an added spark of life.  On Wednesday she included some of her own compositions like the beautiful ‘In between’, but the audience was particularly wowed by her take on jazz standards such as Ellington’s ‘I like the sunshine’.  I have heard her sing Ellington and Strayhorn at other gigs and I am always impressed by the way she freshens these standards up.

Her innate ability to carry off the more difficult of the Ellington/Strayhorn song-book tunes is beyond question. ‘Lush life’ in particular requires real vocal skills to pull it off well and her interpretation is flawless. This affinity cries out for her to record the material.  It would be great to see an Ellington album someday; accompanied by the Kevin Field Trio, alternating with the AJO. IMG_3749 - Version 2Another song from a different genre was ‘River’ (Joni Mitchell).  This classic Mitchell song was recently reinterpreted by Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.  As Smith delivered her version she phrased it in such a way that I could hear those elided Shorter fills in my head.  Her delivery was crystalline and it brought her two worlds together perfectly.

Who: Caitlin Smith (vocals, arrangements), Kevin Field (piano), Oli Holland (bass), Ron Samsom (drums) (acknowledgement to Dennis Thorpe for the River video)

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, 3rd December 2014

The Fondue Set – Review

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There are a number of enigmas in the music world and why this Fondue Set album lay unreleased for so long is one of them.  A recent New Zealand Herald article described Caitlin Smith as one of New Zealand’s best known singers and that’s true.  Because she is so well respected I can’t help wondering why she’s not profiled more often in the mainstream media.  Her voice is simply stunning and the material she choses, her choice of musicians and the way she plays with the lyrics sets her apart.

The Fondue Set have been part of the music scene for more than a decade.  Founded by Graeme Webb, the group has gone on to gain a kind of cult status and perhaps that imparts an added cache.  There have only been two previous Fondue Set CD’s released and both remain popular.  This album was recorded on mini disc in 2004 and it will be a welcome addition to their recorded output.

Caitlin’s voice is a real draw card, but as anyone who has seen her perform will know, her stage presence adds yet another compelling dimension.   As this is a live recording much of that magic is communicated.   Founding member Graeme Webb is not performing on ‘Down To The Rind’ but the other original member Steve Gerrish is.  The new addition is Nigel Gavin who is well known about town for his stellar musicianship and the wonderful sounds he coaxes from his guitars.  These musicians work well with Caitlin, providing all the support she could wish for.

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The arrangements are by Smith, Garrish and Webb and what fine arrangements they are.  Caitlin Smith is known for appropriating songs from other genres and turning them into earthy Jazz vehicles.  It’s the fine arrangements that underpin that process.   I was particularly drawn to  ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ (Trad), ‘Secret Love’ (Pain/Webster) and the red hot treatment of ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ (Mingus).  There is also a gorgeous version of ‘Tennessee Waltz’ (Stewart/King).  This song is very much in vogue with Jazz-Americana musicians and well it might be.   Nigel Gavin works his special brand of magic on Tennessee Waltz and the echoes linger happily in the memory long after the track is finished.

This is available from record stores, iTunes or from http://www.caitlinsmith.com/music

Who: Caitlin Smith (vocals, arrangements), Nigel Gavin (7 string Tui guitar), Steve Gerrish (guitars, arrangements) – Graeme Webb (arrangements)

Caitlin Smith @ CJC (with Kevin Field trio)

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Caitlin Smith is well-known to those who follow the Auckland music scene, where she is highly respected as a vocalist and voice coach.  Scrolling down her resumé reveals just how active she has been over the years and just how far-reaching her influence is.

She sits comfortably on the Soul to Jazz spectrum, often occupying a stylistic space similar to that of Joanie Mitchell or Ricky Lee Jones.  Her material’s drawn from a mix of originals, standards and pop covers but all interpreted in her own unique way.  She has an impressive vocal range and she can captivate an audience with incredible ease.   She is a true performer and her elegance and professionalism are immediately evident.  It takes years for a performer to look this comfortable in front of an audience and many never achieve it.  The fact that she has a severe vision impairment just adds to her allure.

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The set list was mainly from her latest album ‘Stories to tell: The Thorndon Project’.  Sponsored by The Disabilities Commission and PVINZ (Parents of Vision Impaired New Zealand).  Caitlin and the drummer on the album Mark Lockett (also vision impaired) had pulled together an impressive lineup for the session.    Caitlin (vocals), Alan Brown (organ), Paul Van Ross (saxophone, flute), Mark Lockett (drums).   The purpose of the album is to raise awareness around disability issues and to highlight the dedication of the parents caring for those with disabilities.  This hit me right where I live, because my granddaughter has cerebral palsy and I know just how incredibly hard it is for her.  I am also hyper aware of the sacrifices that her mother (my daughter) lovingly makes each day.

The creative arts are often at the forefront of such campaigns and this one is personal and special.  The personnel assembled for the album are all renowned musicians and while three hail from New Zealand, they are a truly international lineup.   Paul Van Ross is from Melbourne, but he is currently in New York.   Mark Lockett is originally from Wellington but he recently moved to New York.  Alan Brown has a legendary status on the New Zealand music scene and works, performs and teaches around Auckland.

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Caitlin had a different band when she appeared at the CJC.  Kevin Field, a regular accompanist for Caitlin had just returned from recording in New York (I am particularly excited about that, as he recorded with Matt Penman and Nir Felder).   Kevin is an extraordinary pianist and leader but he also knows how to accompany a singer.  Anything involving Kevin Field will be worth hearing.  On bass was Vanessa McGowan who bowled me over with her sound and musicality.  I have heard her before but with bigger groups, where she had blended into the mix as a good bass player should in such situations.  In this trio setting she shone.  Her lines were great, but it was the fat warm sound that really captivated me.   She can sing as well.   More of her in trio settings please.  The remaining member was Ron Samsom and he can bring out the best in any band. Whether on mallets, sticks or brushes, Ron is the person you want in your band.   He is simply one of the best traps drummers in New Zealand.  IMG_7830 - Version 2

Caitlin’s own composition ‘In Between’ was impressive and her interpretation of ‘I Don’t Want to Waist my Time on Music you Don’t Really Need’ (Over the Rhine) was edgy and soul infused.    I have chosen a video clip from her CJC band to post; Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’.   When I panned to the audience, what the camera failed to pick up out of the darkness was Trudy Lile coming in on the chorus.  Vanessa McGowan also sang beautiful harmony on the chorus.  Jazz singing is evolving and while perhaps this was not Jazz singing in the traditional sense it was a pleasure to hear.   The feel good factor should never be overlooked and Caitlin delivered this.

Dedicated to those with severe disabilities and to their support networks – for Mala and Jennie especially

Who: Caitlin Smith (vocals, leader, composition), Kevin Field (piano), Vanessa McGowan (bass, vocals), Ron Samsom (drums).

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Building, Brittomart, Auckland.

Album: ‘Stories to Tell: The Thorndon Project’  PVINZ imprint – available from www.caitlinsmith.com