Vocalist Bill Kwan Explores Sade’s Artistry
with an All-Star Group of Distinguished Players
This is no ordinary jazz album. It’s not just that San Francisco vocalist Bill Kwan delves deeply into the songbook of one of the 20th century’s most popular female singers. Slated for release on April 16, 2021 No Ordinary Love: The Music of Sade captures an artist boldly redefining himself. Collaborating closely with a brilliant cast of New York players, he brings a confidently sensuous male sensibility to material defined by the Nigerian-born superstar, whose cool, understated style and regal persona has largely kept other artists from interpreting her songs.
Working again with veteran producer Matt Pierson, whose credits range from Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman and Kirk Whalum to k.d. lang, Laura Benanti and Jane Monheit, Kwan is both reverent and resolutely unprecious in reimagining Sade’s music. In many ways No Ordinary Love builds on his previous project with Pierson, 2015’s Poison & Wine, a pensive and often riveting collection of contemporary indie rock songs by the likes of Beck, Björk, Bon Iver, Gillian Welch, and The Civil Wars.
With Noam Wiesenberg’s bespoke arrangements tailored to the sleek contours of his voice, Kwan finds a way to get inside Sade’s music, navigating treacherous emotional terrain while flipping the gender dynamic in familiar narratives. “It’s very different tackling these songs from a male perspective and I could only sing pieces where I could identify with the lyrics,” Kwan says. “The key was maintaining the intimacy and not over singing. We maintained the fragile quality of Sade’s music even though the feel is very different.”
Kwan is joined by a New York dream team distinguished by deep connections to both the city’s jazz scene and innovative singer/songwriters, starting with pianist/keyboardist Kevin Hays, a veteran improviser who also composes his own songs. Sex Mob and Bill Frisell bassist Tony Scherr and the brilliant Japanese-born drummer/percussionist Keita Ogawa round out the ace rhythm section. Paris-raised Django Festival All-Stars accordion master Ludovic Beier and Russia-reared trumpeter Alex Sipiagin contribute memorable solos.
“Obviously casting is extremely important,” says Pierson, a producer with a deep catalog of career-defining albums by some of jazz and contemporary music’s most influential artists. “Kevin was involved with Bill in the past so he was a natural, but Tony Scherr and Keita Ogawa were also key. The versatility that Tony brings as a singer/songwriter himself is exceptional, and Keita is singular, a drummer with a whole lot of percussion integrated into his set. They’ve got a deep understanding about how to support a vocalist, understanding what not to play. Finally, I’d gotten to know Noam Wiesenberg when we worked together on Camila Meza’s Ámbar project, and felt he would create perfect treatments for many of these songs.”
From the opening track, a gorgeous string-laced arrangement of “The Sweetest Taboo” set to a slinky, predatory groove, Kwan embraces a less-is-more aesthetic. His restraint paradoxically amplifies a song’s emotional wavelength. He’s in the midst of the fierce tango maelstrom of “King of Sorrow,” a lacerating arrangement underscored by Ludovic Beier’s slippery bandoneon and Antoine Silverman’s violin accents. Beier’s harmonica-like accordina brings out the loneliness at the heart of “Jezebel,” a portrait that Kwan renders with gentle precision.
The title track is also the album’s centerpiece, a startlingly effective version of “No Ordinary Love” that captures both Sade’s underappreciated skill as a songwriter and Kwan’s ability to make an iconic tune his own. Propelled by Hays’ funky Fender Rhodes and Scherr’s chunky electric guitar chords, the track pulls off the near impossible feat of standing brilliantly on its own while enhancing the original. With songs drawn from just about every Sade album (and lesser-known pieces she’s contributed to soundtracks), Kwan covers a lot of musical territory, striking pay dirt again and again. From his soothing croon on “Love Is Stronger Than Pride” to the anguished but triumphant “The Big Unknown.”
“The challenge is that her music is so identifiable,” Kwan said. “Even if some of the original productions, like ‘The Sweetest Taboo,’ may not have aged well, her phrasing and approach is so hip. I adopted a very specific rule, singing like you’re not singing, while trying to make sure there’s enough emotion. What makes her music interesting is the repetition. The magic is that hook or melody. Often times Matt would dial me down. He really did guide me with the dynamics of each song.”
Kwan’s mid-life emergence as a jazz-informed vocalist is mostly due to the fact that music is his second calling. A dermatologist with a solo practice in San Francisco, he’s honed his craft at many of the Bay Area’s leading jazz venues. Born and raised in Southern California, Kwan wasn’t particularly drawn to music as a youth. By his early 20s he started getting seriously interested in jazz, finding particular inspiration from the master vocalists he saw performing at the Hollywood Bowl, such as Mel Tormé, Dame Cleo Laine, Nancy Wilson, and Ella Fitzgerald.
Studying medicine at the University of Southern California didn’t leave him much time to pursue his growing love of music, but once he settled in San Francisco he started to seek out opportunities. He spent several years studying with Kitty Margolis, a master teacher and top-shelf jazz vocalist, and took classes at the Jazzschool in Berkeley with vocalist Laurie Antonioli and trombonist Wayne Wallace. Working with bassist Seward McCain and drummer Jim Zimmerman, who both spent many years in the popular trio of pianist Vince Guaraldi, he recorded his 2010 debut album Pentimento, a well-curated program of standards.
Kwan followed up with 2013’s More Than This, a transitional album that ranged from American Songbook fare to Bryan Ferry and Radiohead. It was his first project produced by Pierson, a creative partnership that blossomed with 2015’s Poison & Wine. Undaunted by Sade’s indelible musical imprint, Kwan reveals himself as an artist with a cool and intoxicating sound himself on No Ordinary Love: The Music of Sade, an album that announces the arrival of a potent pop-jazz interpreter.