Jazz saxophonist Blaine Whittaker launches new album in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 November, 2014, 11:15pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 February, 2015, 12:40pm

Six years is a long time between albums, but Blaine Whittaker's follow-up to his third album, 2008's Sound Barrier, is finally ready for release.

There has been a China-only album in the interim, 2011's Twilight, which features his saxophone playing but isn't really representative of his evolution as a composer, nor of his interest, already suggested by some of the tracks on Sound Barrier, in what he calls "urban beats".

"I didn't want to make another swing jazz album," he says. "I started getting deeper into composition, and this is the first album I've had with extensive vocals. I consider it my first real album. It's an urban sounding thing."

Strange Universe - mainly recorded at Village Studios in Guangzhou with some overdubs in Hong Kong, Canada and the US - features some of Whittaker's closest musical friends, including guitarists Guy Le Claire and Eugene Pao; vocalists Gigi Marentette and Angelita Li; trumpeter Theo Croker; and percussionist Robbin Harris.

Also featured on a version of Bill Withers' Ain't No Sunshine are Los Angeles-based producer and keyboardist Mark de Clive-Lowe, and New York-based singer Chris Turner.

The core of the performances is rhythm section The Big Small Trio, comprising bassist Scott Dodd, pianist Nick Bouloukos and drummer Nick McBride, who Whittaker calls his "favourite drummer", and with whom he has been playing regularly for about 25 years.

"We formed a band called The Big Small Quartet," Whittaker says. "We started in the Sands hotel in Macau. I would augment the band on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays so it became a quartet. We played there for eight months and we got a repertoire together, and a rapport. Big Small is a gambling game popular there."

Apart from Ain't No Sunshine and Bouloukos' Snowflake, which features DJ Cavia contributing some turntable and sampling work, all the compositions are Whittaker's.

Although the strong rapport between The Big Small Quartet members gives Strange Universe the feel of a group album, Whittaker's alto sax and one-track flute are kept well to the fore, and his solos display his melodic flair and imagination.

We formed a band called The Big Small Quartet. We started in the Sands hotel in Macau. Big Small is a gambling game popular there

This is a studio album in that Whittaker has explored sounds that are not easily available live, including a mixture of real and programmed drums, record scratches (used as "sonic texture", he says). He also has Marentette, who's not in Hong Kong, supplying both lyrics and vocals to the title track.

There's a chance to hear a good chunk of Strange Universe live next week at its official launch, along with other music performed by The Big Small Quartet and guests. "Some of the tracks lend themselves to being played live more than others," Whittaker says. " Oceans I've played a lot, and I always play Eyes. Ain't No Sunshine is an old standard. We'll certainly play those, and The View."

Many of the musicians who performed on the album are reconvening for the launch, including The Big Small Trio, with Pao and Li as special guests. Harris is in Canada at the moment, but Chris Polanco from Azucar Latina is filling in for him on percussion.

The gig takes place at 9pm on December 4 at Backstage Live in Central.

Meanwhile, this Saturday is the last opportunity to hear Ginger Kwan and Jennifer Palor pay tribute to late singer Amy Winehouse, with the assistance of Winehouse's former guitarist, Robin Banerjee and, as Kwan describes him, "our mutual mate", London-based drummer Davide Pasqualini.

The show should appeal to jazz and Winehouse fans alike, and is being held at Grappa's Cellar from 9.30pm.

Take Three

Three albums of urban grooves which influenced Blaine Whittaker while he was working on Strange Universe.

  • Buckshot LeFonque (1994, Sony Music): jazz and classical saxophonist Branford Marsalis explores hip hop with a large cast of characters which includes guitarists Albert Collins and Nils Lofgren, trumpeter Roy Hargrove and pianist Kenny Kirkland. Maya Angelou reads her poem, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
  • Hard Groove (2003, Verve): Roy Hargrove and his RH Factor band perform a groove-driven set of compositions with jazz, hip hop, funk and soul elements all swirling around in a musical mix impossible to collectively categorise. Vocalists Erykah Badu and D'Angelo are among the guests.
  • Black Radio (2012, Blue Note): at the 55th Grammy Awards pianist and record producer Robert Glasper won in the best R&B album category for this diverse collection of original compositions and covers ranging from Mongo Santamaria's Afro Blue to Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit.