As a pop star with a singularly cool, unmistakably slinky sound, Sade doesn’t need any defenders. But it’s an interesting sign of the times to find that the most effective champion of her songwriting is a dermatologist from San Francisco.
Wisely, Bill Kwan doesn’t attempt to evoke the Nigerian-born singer’s super chill R&B production on his new album No Ordinary Love: The Music of Sade. Working with some of New York’s most creative jazz artists, he brings a confident male vulnerability to songs that sound utterly at home in an acoustic setting. With Israeli-born arranger Noam Wiesenberg’s interactive string charts, the arrangements cradle and propel Kwan’s vocals as the doctor matches Sade’s restraint, revealing her music’s sturdy architecture.
The key, he said, was “maintaining the intimacy and not oversinging.” The opening track sets the parameters of the project’s less-is-more aesthetic as Kwan delivers “The Sweetest Taboo” to a coiled groove cushioned and enhanced by a lithe string quartet. Though the feel of the piece owes little to the 1986 hit, Kwan proudly notes that “we maintained the fragile quality of Sade’s music.”
To be fair, No Ordinary Love isn’t the first time that Kwan has gotten under the skin of a pop song. His 2010 debut album, Pentimento, was a straight-ahead trio session focusing on standards arranged by veteran accompanist Ken Muir (who worked extensively with jazz vocalist Paula West during her rise on the Bay Area scene at the turn of the century). But his 2013 follow up, More Than This, revealed a supple singer with more on his mind than the American Songbook, starting with the title track by Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry. Slipping in songs by Radiohead (“15 Step”) and Nick Drake (“Saturday Sun”), Kwan expanded his repertoire while striking up a productive relationship with highly regarded New York producer Matt Pierson.
Their mutual vision came into clearer focus on 2015’s Poison & Wine, a program of reimagined indie rock songs encompassing Beck and Björk, Bon Iver and The Civil Wars (the duo that wrote the album’s title track). When Kwan started thinking about recording again, he came to Pierson with the idea of including a Sade song on the new project, but the producer suggested focusing on her music. With credits ranging from Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman to k.d. lang and Broadway star Laura Benanti, Pierson is comfortable as a hands-on producer who serves as an equal creative partner. He wasn’t interested in making a jazz album as much as finding material that fit Kwan.
“Having done a couple of projects and knowing Bill’s voice well, he’s not going to blow you away with technique and range,” Pierson said. “He’s a guy with a sweet, intimate instrument who has a fairly specific zone he sings in. That consistency is something to use to our advantage. Talking about artists whose music moved him Sade came up. Part of what was interesting is that people do not cover her music, which is all about setting a mood and telling a story. The song and the melody are very melded together. A lot of the grooves are similar. To me it felt like a perfect fit.”
Born to a Yoruba father and British mother in Ibadan, a sprawling metropolis in southwestern Nigeria, Helen Folasade Adu grew up Essex and studied at London’s prestigious Saint Martin's School of Art. Without harboring any particular musical ambitions, she ended up singing for a jazz-steeped Latin funk band called Pride in the early 1980s. When she and guitarist/saxophonist Stuart Matthewman broke away with several other Pride bandmates, they rechristened the new group with her stage name, Sade.
She and Matthewman formed a fruitful songwriting partnership that spawned most of the band’s material (though she worked with Pride bassist Ray St. John on “Smooth Operator,” the hit that powered Sade’s massively successful 1984 debut album Diamond Life). The band’s personnel has remained remarkably stable over six albums spanning a quarter century, as has the low-simmer sound, which flows from her emotionally restrained delivery and soft, pearlescent tone.
In creating No Ordinary Love, Kwan and Pierson searched the Sade discography for material the both fit his voice and highlighted her underappreciated songwriting skills (she is the only artist with a songwriting credit on every track). What makes the album so effective is that Pierson recruited a stellar team of musicians contained within a Venn diagram’s overlapping fields of New York jazz elite and innovative singer/songwriters.
Known for his work with saxophone star Chris Potter and trumpet great Eddie Henderson, pianist/keyboardist Kevin Hays is also a gifted songwriter whose latest album is a duo project with Italian singer/songwriter Chiara Izzi, Across the Sea. Bassist/guitarist Tony Scherr, a founding member of Sexmob and frequent Bill Frisell collaborator, is also a singer/songwriter with several albums focusing on his originals. The brilliant Japanese-born drummer/percussionist Keita Ogawa rounds out the ace rhythm section. Paris-raised Django Festival All-Stars accordion master Ludovic Beier and Russian trumpeter Alex Sipiagin contribute memorable solos.
Like Ogawa, arranger Noam Wiesenberg played a key role on Chilean vocalist/guitarist Camila Meza’s Pierson-produced Nectar Orchestra album Ámbar. His arrangements include four pieces with instrumentation expanded by a string quartet, and he made full use of the space in Sade’s music, which provide “a lot of opportunities to build on,” Weisberg said.
“If something is heavy with harmony and melody, part of the DNA of the song, it’s a different challenge. The way I write for strings depends on the artist and the producer. If I’m given a free hand, it’s very fun to use the strings as almost part of the rhythm section, not the classic pad you’d hear in a pop arrangement. Like what I’ve done with Camila, I like when the strings are communicative, contributing to the momentum of the song.”
Kwan doesn’t approach the material like a jazz vocalist looking to improvise on a theme, but his phrasing and rhythmic feel stem from his “post-doc” training. He came of age in Southern California listening to the pop music of the day, including Sade, but it wasn’t until he settled into his San Francisco dermatology practice that he decided to get back to his first love, singing. He started with the best, developing repertoire with jazz vocalist Kitty Margolis.
“I wanted to work with somebody who was great at what they did,” Kwan said.
He went on to take classes at the Jazzschool in Berkeley with Laurie Antoniolli, including the week-long intensive she produces every summer with the brilliant vocalist Theo Bleckmann. He joined Jazzschool performance ensembles led by trombonist Wayne Wallace and took vocalist Maye Cavallaro’s class that focuses on getting charts together for a gig. When he started performing in public, Kwan found work in jazz and cabaret spots around the region, from Savanna Jazz in the Mission to Angelica’s in Redwood City. He played Café du Nord regularly and the lounge in Yoshi’s San Francisco occasionally, often accompanied by the top-shelf tandem of bassist Fred Randolph and drummer Greg Wyser-Pratte (with stellar pianists such as Dan Zemmelman or Maya Kronfeld). No matter where he performed, he sought to incorporate songs from recent decades.
“When you do a gig, they want you to do standards,” Kwan said. “But in my mind the definitive recordings of those classic standards are already there. People will sing it different than Ella, but no one will do it better. I’ll never be a bebop singer. Scatting is not a strength. I need to find material that works for me.”