Features/Interviews (PP)

Wilma Baan (new album ‘So Nice’ produced by Claire Martin)

So Nice is the debut album of Dutch vocalist Wilma Baan. It is also the very first release to be produced by the new ‘Soup to Nuts’ production company, jointly run by Claire Martin and Chris Traves. So Nice is produced by Claire Martin, who also plays percussion on it. The album launch is at the 606 Club in Chelsea on Sunday 13 June. Feature by Martin Chilton:

The musicians on So Nice, L-R: Chris Traves, Graham Harvey, Dave Chamberlain, Wilma Baan, Claire Martin, Josh Morrison. Photo credit: Nadja von Massow

Dutch singer Wilma Baan, who is releasing her debut album So Nice at the age of 69, can trace her education in ‘The Great American Songbook’ back to her childhood in Utrecht. It was in that famous city in the Netherlands that her father Henk, a keen amateur bass and cello player, used to take her to a music store in the early 1960s to listen to new jazz releases from America. “This record shop was known for importing the very latest jazz. Those albums were like food. It was what I knew and grew up with.”

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Her favourites included albums by Julie London, Nancy Wilson and “the God-like Shirley Horn”. It would be nearly six decades before she would finally get the chance to make her own jazz recording covering the same jazz standards. There are 12 classics on So Nice, including The End of a Love Affair, once recorded by London, a singer Baan describes as having “a fantastic, understated and sexy voice”.

Baan says that she never really believed that being a vocalist would be her main career. She got her first taste for public singing after training as a nurse at an Amsterdam hospital and performing jazz songs in an end-of-year cabaret for her fellow medical students. It was difficult combining music and nursing, but she leapt at the chances for singing opportunities that occasionally came up, including performing at the North Sea Jazz Festival for two consecutive years and at one-off gigs in jazz clubs. One highlight was being accompanied by the master harmonica player Jean-Baptiste ‘Toots’ Thielemans.

After long spells living abroad with her husband and raising a family – in Oman, Brunei and Greece – Baan and her family settled in England 25 years ago. Some happy chance recommendations led her to singing at charity events – with Joe Stilgoe and then Alex Hutton – and the flame for music was well and truly reignited. Until COVID-19 intervened.

Baan had been due to play a gig last May with pianist Graham Harvey, but it was cancelled as a result of the first lockdown. “Coronavirus brought a halt to everything and everyone was stunned,” says Baan. “But I still had this longstanding wish to make an album with super musicians and I thought ‘why not?’. I had been in contact with singer Claire Martin and she said, ‘if that is what you want to do, then go for it.’”

Martin offered to produce the album So Nice, using the company Soup to Nuts Productions that she had set up with Chris Traves.

Both appear on the album – Martin plays percussion and Traves plays trombone – which was recorded at Kenilworth Production Studios in Penge. “The whole project came about spontaneously,” adds Baan. “Claire is a bundle of energy and fun really. We immediately clicked. She and Chris were very hands-on.”

They were joined by Harvey on piano, Dave Chamberlain on double bass and Josh Morrison on drums, cutting the record last October. “We managed to get it done just before the second lockdown. It was weird being in different rooms. I could just about see the top of Graham’s head and Josh was in a room below us and only visible via a monitor. We used to have lunch in the garden, socially distanced, and although it was different, it was fun.”

Among the tracks they recorded is an impressive version of the Duke Ellington classic Do Nothing till You Hear from Me, a song tackled previously by stars such as Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day and Dinah Washington. “I was definitely aware I was following in the footsteps of the greats,” says Baan who sings in a rich, mellow alto voice. “I listened to my very favourite artists like Carmen McRae, who does that song in bossa nova style, and to Nancy Wilson. But in the end you are happy that someone makes an arrangement that gives you the opportunity to do it completely in your own way. I took something from everyone and made it my own.”

She credits Harvey, who plays a fine piano solo on the track, with a major contribution to the record. “Graham did brilliant arrangements. I can’t praise him enough and he is so modest,” she remarks. “He is the go-to pianist for Stacey Kent. The man is incredible. He has this insanely musical head and he came up with arrangements that I think are to die for.”

Whittling down the original possibilities to 12 songs was tough. Among those that made the final picks are Day by Day (a favourite of Mel Tormé and Frank Sinatra), The Folks Who Live on the Hill and Close Enough for Love. “It was so hard to choose. I could make another six albums and then not even come close to all the songs I love. However, if this was the one album that I was ever going to make in my life, then I would be happy with my choices,” Baan says.

Baan is launching her album with a lunchtime concert at London’s 606 Club in Chelsea on Sunday 13 June, playing alongside Harvey, Chamberlain, Morrison and guest guitarist Nigel Price. “Claire will be there for support and lip gloss,” jokes Baan. Although the Dutch-born musician has never had a singing lesson in her life, she says that Martin gave her tremendous encouragement. “Claire said that the most important thing is that you feel jazz and you have it or you don’t. Flatteringly, she told me, ‘you have it.’”

Baan says that what makes So Nice special is that “it’s all me… and it’s all straight from the heart.”

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LINKS: Wilma Baan’s website

Details / bookings for the 606 Club launch – or ring 0207 352 5953

Soup to Nuts Productions

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