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Alice Zawadzki

China Lane


by Ian Mann

July 08, 2014


A superb collection of songs that draws upon many influences yet ends up sounding distinctive and unique. Evocative vocals and lyrics are combined with inspired improvisational passages.

Alice Zawadzki

“China Lane”

(Whirlwind Recordings WR4647)

Vocalist, violinist and songwriter Alice Zawadzki studied classical violin at the Royal Northern College of Music in her native Manchester before moving to London to further her studies by completing a course in jazz singing and composition at the Royal Academy of Music. Zawadzki obviously learnt well and is now one of the hottest properties on the London music scene with the release of her long awaited début album set to enhance her reputation yet further.

I first became aware of Zawadzki’s music when I saw her leading her band in an excellent performance at Camden’s intimate Green Note venue as part of the 2012 London Jazz Festival. Much of the material to be heard on “China Lane” was played at this show by a band featuring some of London’s finest young jazz musicians in the shapes of Kit Downes (keyboards), Alex Roth (guitar) and Jon Scott (drums).

I’ve also seen and heard Zawadzki contributing both violin and voice as a member of guitarist Moss Keane’s literary inspired group Moss Project, whose 2013 album for the Babel label “What Do You See When You Close Your Eyes?”  is highly recommended (see review elsewhere on this site).

“China Lane” has received ecstatic reviews and confirms Zawadzki’s status as a major vocal, instrumental and song-writing talent. She contributes vocals, violin and occasional piano alongside a core group of Downes, Roth, Scott and bassist Andreas Lang. The album also features the additional voices of two other fine young jazz singers, Emilia Martensson and Fini Bearman and the sound of guest cellist Shirley Smart. We also hear a string section comprised of violinists Eva Thorarinsdottir and Steven Proctor, violists Lucy Nolan and Tanah Stevens and cellists Peggy Nolan and Rosie Toll.

Recorded at a variety of locations “China Lane” is the product of five years of writing and arranging and combines original songs with arrangements of traditional Sephardic material. Thus Zawadzki’s jazz, folk and classical influences intertwine on a set of tunes that have been described as “modern fairy tales” as evocative vocals and lyrics combine with inspired improvisational passages to create something enchanting and unique. 

The album commences with Zawadzki’s own “Ring Of Fire” which introduces itself with a Bartok inspired folk like melody, rich harmony vocals and pizzicato strings. Later Zawadzki’s violin takes flight and leads us into a lengthy instrumental excursion featuring Scott’s brushed grooves and Downes’ colourful and imaginative keyboards. A vocal reprise, featuring the notorious lyric “I don’t fucking care” (making this the only jazz album I’ve reviewed to carry a “parental advisory” warning) then gives way to a second instrumental passage, again featuring Downes on Hammond plus the subtly blues tinged guitar of Zawadzki’s co-producer Alex Roth. Zawadzki has described this song as being about “young people drinking cider in a park” and the earthiness of the words contrasts neatly with the other worldly quality of Zawadzki’s singing and the rich invention of the instrumental episodes. This balance between the ethereal and the visceral, the sacred and profane, is a common thread running throughout Zawadzki’s music. 

Opening with the sound of Lang’s double bass “Cat” is an example of Zawadzki’s “modern fairy tales” approach with “the ghost of a murdered feline finding its way into the body of a woman with excellent consequences”. Trip hop inspired rhythms combine with fantastical, darkly sensual lyrics, jazzy scat vocalising and Downes’ omnipresent Hammond to thrilling if unsettling effect.

Zawadzki acknowledges her heritage on two traditional Sephardic folk songs delivered in Polish. Roth’s adaptation of “Indome Para Marsilia” is sung by Zawadzki with considerable intensity and a profound sense of involvement. Roth’s guitar is prominent in his own arrangement, sharing the instrumental honours with Scott’s subtle drum colourations as Zawadzki’s vocals soar defiantly.

The Ladino “Dicho Me Habian Dicho” is a more sombre affair with Zawadzki’s moving vocal enhanced by Roth’s spidery guitar, Scott’s hand drummed rhythms and the brooding but striking sound of Shirley Smart’s cello. The two folk songs are said to be about “loss, exodus and prejudice”  with Zawadzki’s singing capturing these emotions perfectly. Her performance, plus the quality of the arrangements, ensures that the sentiments of these two songs are immediately obvious, even to English speaking listeners.

The ethereal “Low Sun; Lovely Pink Light” was inspired by the beauty of a sunrise over the Danish island of Stryno. The piece features the enchanting wordless vocal harmonies of Zawadzki, Martensson and Bearman allied to the underpinning sound of Zawadzki’s violin and the delicate filigree of Roth’s subtly picked acoustic guitar. Wonderfully descriptive this is a kind of contemporary tone poem, a perfect mood piece.

The Zawadzki original “You As A Man” is a dark tale of obsessional love, similar in construction to the first two tracks with the vocal episodes punctuated by extended instrumental passages. The compositional influences are said to include Steve Coleman’s M-Base, something that is expressed in Scott’s odd meter grooves and the spiralling solos of Downes and Roth.

Although completed in Berlin the title track represents a homage to Zawadzki’s home city of Manchester, an acknowledgement of a deeply felt nostalgia whilst simultaneously extolling the virtues of “living in the moment”. Recorded at Matt & Phreds Jazz Club in Manchester the arrangement features Zawadzki at the piano and deploys the aforementioned string sextet. The final cut also includes the humming of beer fridges and the sound of passing buses. Zawadzki’s lyrics reference such everyday things as “the Poundstore and the William Hill” on a deeply evocative piece of writing that celebrates the gritty beauty of the northern city at sunset. It’s an astonishingly mature song, the kind of urban hymn one might imagine Tom Waits writing if he’d been brought up in the North of England, or closer to home maybe it’s a kind of less commercial “Penny Lane” or “Strawberry Fields”.

Having spotted Zawadzki’s talent fairly early on it’s good to see the rest of the world catching up and I’m delighted that “China Lane” has been so rapturously received. This is a superb collection of songs that draws upon many influences yet ends up sounding distinctive and unique. Zawadzki is a huge individual talent but the work of her accompanists, and particularly that of her core group of Roth, Downes, Scott and Lang is also a significant factor in the album’s success. Zawadzki speaks of her colleagues as “taking my thoughts and notes and telepathically painting great swathes of luminous music”. My only cavil is that it’s a shame that the lyrics are not reproduced on the album packaging as this would both enhance the listener’s enjoyment of the songs and emphasise Zawadzki’s talents as a wordsmith.

This is an album that will firmly establish Alice Zawadzki as a significant presence on the UK music scene and the future is likely to see her working larger venues. So catch her you while you can at the album launch dates at Pizza Express Jazz Club in London on Tuesday July 15th and Wednesday July 16th 2014.
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