“You choose the songs you love doing… I love the whole spectrum, swing, ballads, bossa nova, everything.” says Netherlands-born singer Wilma Baan. Her new album has a fascinating backstory. Feature by John Fordham:
Wilma Baan, the Netherlands-born jazz singer, is in the prime of a long, very diverse, and tirelessly active life as a singer, full-time medic, and parent. But the upbeat title of only her second album since her early vocal debuts on the North Sea Jazz Festival and other prestigious European venues in the early 1980s, reveals just how vivaciously she relishes the thrills of both the present moment and an ever-inspirational past.
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Look At Me Now!, this month’s release in collaboration with ECN Music, refers to a 1940s Frank Sinatra/Tommy Dorsey hit song, but its message of startled delight also neatly catches the way this engaging and courageous woman feels about her late-career personal renaissance as a singer – and for that matter, the way she sounds on the phone when we talk about her love of the Great American Songbook, her life as a medic, the disorientating health setback that threatened to bring her jazz dream to a halt, and the backstory of this fine recording’s genesis.
On the face of it, Look At Me Now! is just another standards album – but that’s a depiction that comes nowhere near the personal charm, lyricism and insightful musicality you can hear from even a few moments of tuning in to what Baan, producer Claire Martin, and a terrific ensemble led by the elegant and coolly experienced British pianist Graham Harvey came up with on a studio session in Hastings in November last year.
Baan has said of America’s classic Broadway and jazz songs that she regards them as jewels in a treasure-trove, which ‘is and always will be a source of inspiration to me. So many wonderful compositions, combined with lyrics that genuinely tell a story, each begging to be moulded into every thinkable arrangement.’ Her delight in the entrancing possibilities that America’s timelessly streetwise poetry releases is evident throughout this 12-track set, with Baan’s thoughtful and often sparkling interpretations further animated by Harvey’s sharp-eared and responsive trio (with Jeremy Brown on bass and Sebastiaan de Krom on drums), and by spirited guest appearances from guitarist Nigel Price, vibraphonist Nat Steele, flugelhornist James McMillan, and percussionist Tristan Banks.
The album’s title track goes back a long way – to 1941 and the Joe Bushkin/John DeVries song for a new kid on the block called Frank Sinatra, backed by Tommy Dorsey’s powerful orchestra. But where Sinatra’s account of first love’s transformative impact had an unbridled young man’s swagger to it, Baan’s version is more reserved, shaded by the passage of time and chance, but just as life-affirming in its way.
She savours the churning thought-processes of Michel Legrand’s iconic ‘The Windmills Of Your Mind’ in a slow, crystal-clear delivery underpinned by Harvey’s quiet chording, cannily coasts over the walking grooves of ‘The Great City’ (‘if you can get into the city, make sure you can walk back out’) and ‘Old Devil Moon’ – and brings a parent’s tenderness to the Gene Lees lyric of Bill Evans’ ‘Waltz for Debby’, with vibraphonist Nat Steele supplying the breezy liberation of a fledgling leaving the nest in a buoyantly swinging solo. Among other highlights on this fine set are haunting interpretations of two percipient songs about accepting differentness – ‘Bein’ Green’, and ‘Born to be Blue’. For reasons that soon emerge in our telephone conversation, Wilma Baan has reasons of her own to understand what an unexpectedly different take on the everyday world can feel like.
‘I grew up being fed music,’ Baan says with a laugh. ‘An aunt told me that when I was born at home, there was a jazz song playing as I arrived – there was always music. My parents would have phases where it was just classical music – my dad used to be a classical cello player – and I was fed Bach and Brahms and whatever, but also every new jazz recording arriving in the country that my dad could lay his hands on. When I was old enough, he would take me to the record shop, where you could listen to the new releases on headphones in a booth. So that’s my musical makeup, I don’t know anything else.’
As a fascinated teenager, Baan picked up plenty of standard-song melodies that way, but her talent for gripping an audience with them fortuitously emerged through an early life-choice that had nothing to do with jazz. As a high-flying secondary-school student who excelled in languages, but with a crop of medics in her wider family, she initially considered studying to be a doctor, but – despite the encouragement of her schoolteachers – was scared of the mathematics and science it required. In the Netherlands at the time, a path into nursing was easier, and Baan took it.
‘We had a very old, traditional, and lovely hospital in my locality in Amsterdam,’ Baan recalls. ‘And they had these traditions where each group who were half a year behind the exam group – and therefore due to be the next ones – put on a cabaret for the exam students. You would do that show with friends, brothers, nephews, whatever, and we would form little jazz combos, and write our own lyrics on existing melodies. I knew some standard songs and bossa novas, and when I performed them people started saying to me, “maybe you should do this a bit more”. Now and again in a weekend, at parties and weddings with mates, it just started to snowball along. The Netherlands is a very small country, so as soon as you stick your head half a millimetre over what’s median, then people prick up their ears. I started singing a bit in clubs and on radio broadcasts in the early 1980s, and on the North Sea Jazz Festival too. But I became a nurse, so that became my main focus then.’
Did that life ever offer any insights into music’s place in our minds and hearts?
‘Well, I included Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debby” on the album, which was composed for his niece,’ Baan says. ‘And whenever I think of it, I see this little girl dancing joyfully around, and as a parent it speaks to me. At one point in my nursing life, I had duty in a neo-natal ward, there were all new-born babies there, and the idea was to give the mums some rest for part of the night. At some point, one would start crying and soon the rest would join in, and then it was pandemonium. So I would start singing a song, and – you might not believe it – there was silence. I think music reaches everybody, at any age, and they listened. Of course – ‘ Baan chuckles at the antithesis – ‘the moment I finished my song, everybody started bawling again, but that’s a different story’.
I ask Wilma Baan about the impromptu formation of the band on Look At Me Now!, and how it came to sound like an ensemble of old hands who have played together forever. She’s quick to point out that pianist Graham Harvey’s key role in her 2021 album So Nice (on that occasion with bassist Dave Chamberlain and drummer Josh Morrison, with a little artful input from trombonist and studio owner Chris Traves) and the wisdom of her vocal-star producer Claire Martin, were crucial building blocks in the shaping of this new adventure.
‘I don’t think I know anyone as understatedly creative and musical and subtle as Graham Harvey,’ Baan fervently observes. ‘Of course I’d heard him playing with Stacey Kent at Ronnie’s and elsewhere, and when I approached him at a gig at the Bull’s Head in Barnes, I was amazed that he agreed to play on So Nice. Claire was a background influence in that, of course. The bassist Jeremy Brown and drummer Sebstiaan de Krom – who’s a compatriot of mine – were available for this session too, Nat Steele is a great vibraphonist and I find the vibraphone absolutely beautiful, and – like Joe Pass – Nigel Price is an amazing player who entirely understands a guitarist’s relationship with a singer.
‘We recorded at James McMillan’s Quiet Money Studios in Hastings, so the whole experience could not have been at a nicer location and in a nicer atmosphere – and James is a fantastic trumpet and flugelhorn player too, so I was lucky enough to have the benefit of those skills on two of the tracks. When it came to choosing the songs, well, you choose the songs you love doing, but for an album you have to balance it of course. I’d be happy to do ballads only, but I don’t want people to fall asleep. I love the whole spectrum, swing, ballads, bossa nova, everything.’
Before we part, I venture to ask Wilma Baan about the intervention of fate that has profoundly affected her life in every area. In the early 1980s, with her nursing career at full stretch and singing jazz an enchanting sidebar to that life, Baan started being reminded by friends about a sonic dimension she hadn’t noticed she was beginning to miss. If they would remark on the sounds of birds singing, phones ringing, the clink of keys dropped on floors, she realised she was hearing less and less of the upper register.
Baan was diagnosed with sensorineural deafness, a deteriorating prognosis in the ’80s when analogue hearing aids were of little help for much more than conversation. Fellow musicians pointed out that her vocal pitching was suffering as her ears increasingly sent her brain unreliable information. So Baan’s singing life went on hold for more than a decade, until the arrival of digital hearing aids in 1996, and the glimpse of a way back to singing jazz. Nowadays, she can lead a full life, communicate in person and on the phone, and listen to music and accurately perform it, as new technology streams feedback-free incoming sound via Bluetooth.
‘I was so very, very insecure, when I tried to start singing live again, after digital hearing aids came in,’ Baan says fervently. ‘I tried a few gigs, and I kept asking people in the audience “how was that, was I in key?”. It was wonderful to discover they were working. It’s not always easy. Even now, if I’m drowned out by people talking or shouting in the audience, that’s when I almost panic because I know it’s the wrong situation for me. I need proper amplification, I need ideally two monitors in front of me – the technology has not yet evolved to the point where hearing aids can double as monitors but it will come – but it’s manageable. Of course there are restrictions to what I can do and what I’m prepared to do. But it’s so wonderful to be doing it again, this thing I’ve loved since my teens. There’s just so much beautiful music out there to perform, and always a different way, however long ago those songs were written. And if there isn’t, they’re beautiful enough by themselves to be repeated and repeated again.’
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Wilma Baan’s Look At Me Now! is out on 28 July, released in collaboration with ECN Music. – Buy the album
She launches the album at London’s Pizza Express Jazz Club, Dean Street, on 31 July. – BOOKINGS