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A legendary quote from Audrey Hepburn adorns the home page of Bill Kwan’s dermatology practice web site. It’s clearly aimed at his patients, but also artfully sums up a philosophy that has served the San Francisco physician well in his other profession as a jazz singer: “Beauty is being the best possible version of yourself on the inside and out.”
Kwan’s independent release, No Ordinary Love: The Music of Sade, is his latest artistic manifestation of this ideal and greatly abetted by producer Matt Pierson and veteran arranger Noam Wiesenberg. On a soulful, sultry and stylistically eclectic collection, the singer brings a unique male perspective to both familiar and lesser-known gems by the influential British-Nigerian singer-songwriter who’s earned four Grammys and, from her adopted homeland of England, an OBE and CBE.
The album, Kwan’s fourth overall and third helmed by Pierson, breezes along like an emphatic extension of the cool, off-the-beaten-path aesthetic the two created on their previous effort, Poison & Wine. There, Kwan ventured completely away from the Great American Songbook and pop standard fare of his self-produced 2010 debut Pentimento and instead re-imagined contemporary indie-pop and alt-rock classics by the likes of Beck, Björk, Coldplay, Gotye, Bon Iver and The Civil Wars.
Credit the launch of Kwan’s unique jazz interpretations of pop and rock to Pierson’s intuitive reading of the singer’s emotional state after a difficult breakup. “I wanted him to connect with something real emotionally, so we came up with material, stories and treatments that would relay that to the listener, working it with a more contemporary/singer-songwriter production approach,” says Pierson, whose list of jazz and pop credits include Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman, Kirk Whalum, Jane Monheit, k.d. lang, Bob James and Laura Benanti. “When I work with Bill, everything begins with a similar conversation: What are you feeling personally, what stories should you tell at this time? And for me, how can I encourage him to be emotionally available in the music so as to best connect with the listener?”
Kwan, who began listening to Sade in her heyday when he was an undergrad majoring in biology at UCLA, spent a few years post-Poison & Wine pondering material for a follow-up. Far from a single epiphany, the concept of a Sade album was a slow, simmering effort that began with a song with which Kwan felt connected: “Jezebel,” from Sade’s second album, Promise.
“I knew I wanted to focus again on interpreting songs outside of the jazz realm,” Kwan says. “And for several years, Matt and I discussed various ideas but nothing seemed to jell. I am always listening to old and new material and felt a spark of inspiration when I heard ‘Jezebel.’ The lyrics have to resonate with me for me to sing them. That song led me to listen to more Sade, and Matt said he felt that I really connected with her vibe and stories, and that the melodies were really suited to my voice, so why not just do a Sade songbook? I liked his idea to find suitable tracks from every album but her debut, and we spent six months trading Soundclouds back and forth, reacting to, embracing or rejecting each other’s choices, listening intently and whittling it down to the nine you hear on the album.”
Pierson focused on finding a balance between familiar hits and hidden treasures. This is typified by the first two tracks: a sweltering, lyrical string-quartet-sweetened “The Sweetest Taboo” followed by a staid and gentle, trumpet-laced “Flower of the Universe,” a relative obscurity from the 2018 Disney film A Wrinkle in Time. Meanwhile, Kwan was working on his musical mindset, addressing the reality that Sade’s voice and delivery are inimitable and challenging himself to find an entry point where he could somehow make the songs his own.
“The goal is, if we do a song, it’s got to be a new interpretation, not an exact copy of her,” Kwan says. “It was important to bring that male perspective to these lyrics, and I figured that people would either get it or not, appreciate my willingness to give it a shot or be upset that I’m tackling something too sacred to touch. Once we decided to do a full Sade album, one of the most exciting aspects was the fact that not too many artists have covered her — and certainly not to this extent. Live and on my first album, I certainly have done my share of standards, but to me there’s no real challenge putting out something that’s been done so many times, and better, by so many before me. I’m more attracted to musical ideas that haven’t been done before because there’s an opportunity to share something different. The key was finding my own twist while keeping her intimacy and fragility intact.”
Whatever qualms Kwan may have had were put to rest the minute he walked into Michiko Rehearsal Studios in Times Square for the first rehearsal, using Pierson’s initial arrangements in December 2019. (The actual recording took place at Sear Sound in February 2020.) The producer had assembled a veteran NYC-based crew featuring pianist/keyboardist Kevin Hays, bassist Tony Scherr — both of whom had played with Kwan previously — and drummer-percussionist Keita Ogawa. While Hays mainly plays piano, his wild Fender Rhodes musings, combined with Scherr’s driving bass lines and Ogawa’s offbeat groove, help create the pulsing energy of what is the set’s most intense, hypnotic tune, “No Ordinary Love,” a cut the singer, understating the matter, calls “a dense track with a lot going on.”
In addition to “Flower of the Universe,” trumpeter Alex Sipiagin graces the moody, atmospheric, almost whispery “The Moon and the Sky”; the string-enhanced “Haunt Me”; and the bustling, emotionally swelling closing ballad “The Big Unknown.” Another well-chosen guest musician, French- born Django Reinhardt Festival favorite Ludovic Beier, adds a sense of romantic exotica via his bandoneon to a lush, dramatic tango take on “King of Sorrow” and lends his accordion sweetness to “Jezebel.”
“The players were left up to me,” Pierson says, “and I wanted a couple of musicians that had already worked with Bill combined with the idea of using Noam Weisenberg to do arrangements and having Keita on drums/percussion. They worked on Camila Meza’s Ambar project, and I thought that same vibe would work here.”
Kwan adds, “I appreciated the opportunity to bring my point of view to the open-ended, jazzy sonic palette Matt and Noam created, which offered a lot of interesting possibilities for songs that had always been thought of as seductive pop/soul. The happiest moments of my life come when everything’s working just right with a great band and together we’re creating something beautiful that is of the moment. It’s a sense of creation and camaraderie that can never be perfectly recreated. Only when you hear it later on the final recording can you reconnect with just what you were thinking and how you were feeling when you sang it.” - Jonathan Widran
Rebecca Angel, Love Life Choices (Timeless Grooves)
Leading with “For What It’s Worth,” a Vietnam-era classic soulfully re-imagined for modern times, NYC singer-songwriter Rebecca Angel makes her full-length album debut with the sensual, stylistically eclectic Love Life Choices. Vibing with the sonic vision of veteran keyboardist-producer Jason Miles, the warmly engaging vocalist blends the personal with the socially conscious, celebrating her recent marriage while addressing the pandemic and other issues. The collection features fresh jazz, soul and Brazilian-flavored originals; atmospheric and grooving interpretations of classics by Bill Withers, Bob Marley, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Sade; and a few memorable, previously released tracks.