Music interview: Becc Sanderson on her jazz take on Bowie classics

Becc Sanderson PIC: Ditte Solgaard '/ First Light Photography
Becc Sanderson PIC: Ditte Solgaard '/ First Light Photography
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The iconoclastic sounds of John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, the orchestral splendour of Basie and Ellington, the vivacity of Hot Club swing… and the chameleonic genius of David Bowie. All feature in the seventh and largest season to date of Late Night Studio Jazz at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, which launches next Saturday with an adventurous jazz take on the mercurial Bowie’s song legacy.

The Becc Sanderson Sextet’s Bows to Bowie project features the Edinburgh-based Australian vocalist and her band in a programme drawing on such classic albums as Heroes, Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, with an album, recorded live in Edinburgh’s Jazz Bar in March, due for release by the end of the year.

The album (on the independent label Ramrock Red), is dedicated to the late drummer and Jazz Bar proprietor Bill Kyle, who was an ardent supporter of the project. It comes on the back of a successful Kickstarter campaign, with Sanderson accompanied by a formidable ensemble directed by her husband, trombonist Chris Greive, with saxophonist Martin Kershaw, pianist Steve Hamilton, bassist Brian Shiels and drummer Alyn Cosker (although next Saturday’s gig sees Brodie Jarvie on bass, Tom Gordon on drums and Dave Milligan on piano).

How does a jazz outfit like Sanderson’s approach such a monumental canon from a very different genre? “With a great deal of respect and love,” she replies. “For me, all Bowie’s music is so strong lyrically and melodically; there’s so much going on. But we also have to remember that the very spirit of the man was about innovation and deconstruction – about not really giving a damn.”

Sanderson’s method is to select the Bowie numbers she wants to perform and present them to Greive, also Australian-born, whose playing credits range eclectically from the folk fusion of Salsa Celtica, through to his regular seat on the Scottish National Jazz orchestra, to the electronic muscle of the NeWt trio.

“Often I’ll have colours and ideas, vague structures, of how I want things to happen, and Chris, bless him, rarely comes back with something that I don’t love. He really knows my voice and how it sounds at its best, and he knows that I like to be challenged and for the band to be challenged.”

She and Greive planned the Becc Sanderson Sextet as a “living real book” of her 30-year career, which in Australia earned her a reputation as an award-winning torch singer, not least with her time in the popular rhythm and blues outfit the Sweet Blue Midnights. From R&B she moved on to cover material by the vocalists she most admired, such as Billie Holiday, Carmen McCrae and Judy Garland. Later influences took in Kate Bush and, of course, Bowie.

Bows to Bowie is planned as a three-album project, the first of which she says, is aimed at enticing non-jazz-savvy Bowie fans into the fold: “We don’t want to alienate people and we’ve made sure we’ve done greatest hits like Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes and Oh You Pretty Things.” She laughs: “Then once we’ve got them into our warm embrace, in the next couple of albums we might challenge them a bit.”

The weekly Late Night Studio Jazz series runs until Friday 7 December, finishing with the Scottish National Jazz orchestra reprising its Basie and Ellington programme. In between, the otherwise Saturday night gigs include saxophonist Tommy Smith’s powerful John Coltrane tribute quartet on 10 November and swing fiddle virtuosity from the Tim Kliphuis Trio on 1 December, while on 15 December, saxophonist Paul Towndrow marks his 40th birthday with his Charlie Parker with Strings programme.

In the meantime, another highly regarded Scots saxophonist, Laura MacDonald, brings her purposeful quartet (with Kevin Mackenzie, Mario Caribe and Stu Brown) to the Jazz at St James in Leith tonight and to the Merchants House of Glasgow tomorrow. - Jim Gilchrist

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