Features/Interviews (PP)

Janette Mason (‘Wall to Wall Bowie’ EP, released 25 June / Ronnie Scott’s gig 10 August)

“It’s not a tribute, it’s a reworking and a celebration,” says Janette Mason of her Wall to Wall Bowie EP which is released on 10” vinyl and CD on 25 June. Rob Adams writes:

Keyboardist, arranger and producer Janette Mason, whose many credits include work with Oasis, Seal, k.d. lang and Robert Wyatt, is a life-long Bowie fan. She sneaked in to see Bowie star in The Man Who Fell To Earth at the tender age of 13 and had his Sound and Vision single on permanent play on her Philips portable turntable back in the day.

So her treatments of the five Bowie songs including The Jean Genie, which is given an energetic new riff and inspires a tasty jazz-funk keyboard solo, and Starman, reborn here as an appropriately atmospheric ballad, are guided by love and respect.

“I tried not to think of the original versions when I was developing these arrangements,” says Mason, who first began re-working Bowie material during a series of Pizza Express sessions some ten or so years ago that focused on a different composer every night.

“We were arranging on the spot and Bowie was great for that because his songs are so open to interpretation,” says Mason, whose spell as musical director for Lea DeLaria included an appearance at Carnegie Hall. “He’s not like Stevie Wonder, who I love but whose material is much more jazz/soul based already.”

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The attraction in Bowie for a jazz musician, she says, is that his chord sequences so often go round unpredictable corners. There is a jazz element to Bowie songs such as Loving the Alien and Absolute Beginners, and the fact that Bowie worked with jazz musicians, from pianist Mike Garson on the Ziggy Stardust tours through to composer-arranger Maria Schneider and saxophonist Donny McCaslin in his final years, she feels, is significant.

Mason’s appointment as musical director at the Hideaway Club in Streatham in 2012 gave her free rein to unleash her creative spirit and allowed her to take her Bowie ideas further. She then, by chance, met singer David McAlmont, whose musical experiences span Michael Nyman and Bond composer David Arnold, the 1990s McAlmont & Butler hit Yes and his more recent Billie Holiday shows. His falsetto style can suggest Bowie without in any way trying to emulate him, as the EP’s version of Fame illustrates.

McAlmont, in turn, introduced Mason to Sam Obernik, the Dublin-born, London-based singer with a raft of Top 40 singles and dancefloor smashes to her name, who lends her siren voice to Wild is the Wind on the EP.

A “Wall to Wall Bowie” Evening at the Hideaway. Photo courtesy of Janette Mason (left)

The icing on the cake of Mason’s Bowie experience came when, last year, she successfully auditioned for Holy Holy, the supergroup featuring long-time Bowie producer Tony Visconti and ex-Spiders from Mars drummer, Woody Woodmansey.

“For a Bowie fan like me this was amazing,” she says. “I never got to meet David Bowie so to find myself working with the producer who did so much to help shape his music over so many years – and Ziggy Stardust’s drummer – was a dream come true. Plus, you get to hear all these great stories in the van on the way to gigs.”

Wall to Wall Bowie – the band – has earned a reputation for putting on exciting live shows that invariably sell out and Mason hopes the EP will appeal both to die-hard Bowie fans and more recent converts to his music. The next show is at Ronnie Scott’s on 10 August.

“Bowie’s songs don’t age, for me, and the records still sound as strong as they did when they came out,” she says. “I think that’s why so many young music fans have been discovering him, as well as bands like Queen, because there’s great energy and excitement in these recordings and I’d like to think that we’ve captured the essence of Bowie, just in a different way to the originals.”

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LINK: Wall to Wall Bowie at Janette Mason’s website

Album photo courtesy of Mark Wilmshurst

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