‘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. 

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