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A unique talent possessing a remarkable instrument, Munich-based vocalist-composer-lyricist Alma Naidu is that rare generational find. Jazzthing magazine hailed her “delicate, beautifully clear voice with absolutely perfect intonation” while Böblinger Zeitung called her “an elemental force.” Renowned drummer-producer Wolfgang Haffner had no trouble immediately recognizing her gifts, having discovered her in 2019 and showcasing her on his 2020 album, Kind of Tango. “When I first heard Alma at a jam session in early 2019, I was immediately blown away by her musicality as well as by her way of performing on stage,” said Haffner. “At the second song I joined her on stage in and we played a stunning version of ‘My Funny Valentine.’ The way she made this famous song to her own was really impressive. Alma is a very special talent with an own strong musical voice.”
After wowing audiences with her working quintet at gigs in London, Munich and throughout Germany, as well as live streaming performances she gave during the Corona lockdown of 2020, the enchanting songstress makes her auspicious debut as a leader with Alma on the Leopard label. Recorded in Bonn during the pandemic (November 2020, March and April 20210) and produced by Haffner, this introductory statement by the charming 25-year-old Naidu could just as easily been titled, A Star Is Born.
The daughter of musicians — her father is a conductor, her mother an opera singer — Alma has been a jazz and pop singer since age 15. A onetime fan of Metallica as a teenager, she also sang the vocal parts on Duke Ellington’s much-heralded Sacred Concerts at the age of 19. After studying jazz singing in 2016 at the University of Music and Theater in Munich, she spent one semester at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where she studied with revered vocalist and ECM recording artist Norma Winstone.
Naidu’s soft, clear and moving “old soul” interpretations of jazz standards like “My Foolish Heart,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” “If I Should Lose You” and “Body and Soul” have cast a spell on audiences in recent years. But it’s her gifts as an accomplished songwriter and evocative lyricist that really come to fruition in stunning fashion on Alma. “I strongly identify myself not only as a singer and wanted this to be clear with my first album,” said Naidu. “My own music is very important to me and a big part of myself as a musician. I wrote and arranged everything on this album, was very involved in the whole mixing process, as I have a pretty exact vision of what I want it to sound like. In fact, some of the songs I pre-produced before going into the studio. So on this album I combine my love for film music composition, songwriting, arranging and singing. And of, course, lyric-wise, it is all based on my own thoughts, world view and experiences.”
Alma opens on an affecting note with “Just a Word,” which has her delivering the intimate love song in fragile, heartfelt fashion. Guest Nils Lindgren contributes a warm, lyrical trombone solo to enhance the proceedings. “Hold On To Me” is a gentle anthem with an undercurrent of persuasive brushwork from Haffner and an agile bass solo from Claus Fisher. As the piece builds to an uplifting peak, it brings out a particularly powerful, highly emotive quality in Naidu’s wonderful voice.
The wistful “Something ‘Bout the Rain” (that makes me drift away/that steals my pain away) is another heartfelt, autobiographical number by Naidu. Simon Oslender offers a jazzy, introspective piano solo midway through the piece before it returns to an uplifting conclusion with Alma’s triumphant wordless vocals leading the way. Her tender, confessional duet with Oslender on Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes” generates goosebumps while her spirited delivery on the pop-soul ballad “Illlusion” may recall ‘70s divas like Angela Bofill and Minnie Ripperton. Oslender also delivers a tasty piano solo on this appealing smooth jazz number.
Naidu next delves into some bold territory on the brief “Interlude,” a daring, wordless a cappella showcase that further reveals her incredible range, crystal clear articulation and impeccable intonation, along with her keen intuition. “Improvising alone is something that I’ve started doing at some concerts lately, which, at first, needed courage, but now I really look forward to that part of my program. It allows me to center myself, be completely free and it has an almost meditative effect on me, like singing a mantra. This is when I’m the most open and vulnerable, really revealing myself. How it turned out on the album, with the climax and high chest voice part where I’m almost crying/screaming felt very raw, powerful and almost like a primal scream.”
“Silence Pays Your Song,” featuring Christopher Dell on vibes and underscored by Haffner’s gentle hands-only touch on the kit, finds Alma caressing each note with the kind of deep feeling and maturity that belies her young age. As she explained, “This song is coming from that special connection that people get through music, this kind of transcendent emotional connection when you share music with one another. When you’re not with the person and you are on your own, the song gets in your head and you almost feel as if they are close by.”
Alma’s dramatic a cappella intro on “Heart Pace” leads to a kind of ‘70s chill groove, courtesy of Oslender’s Fender Rhodes electric piano and Haffner’s tone-setting backbeat. Her evocative lyrics (troubled nights can cool a flaming heart/move on ’til your heart becomes alive) paint a vivid picture for the listener. The baroque flavored “Walbera” finds Naidu locked in some intricate unisons with bassist Thomas Stieger while second bassist Claus Fisher plays a counterpoint melody. This classically influenced vehicle, reflecting some of Naidu’s own musical background, also finds her stretching out with some accomplished scatting.
Guest guitarist Dominic Miller brings his gentle nylon string lines to bear on the melancholy minor key ballad “Wondering.” Written by Haffner, it features lyrics by Naidu, whose glorious voice is majestic, soaring and powerful here. As she explained, “This was originally a tune of Wolfgang's called ‘Recuerdos.’ He told me it’s about the time he had on Ibiza, remembering the moments there. So this is what influenced the lyrics I wrote to it, just remembering some warm summer days with an old love that only lasted during one summer, then both needing to get back to their everyday lives.”
“White Tulip” is another mellow groove number paced by Fender Rhodes and a chill backbeat, a la Roy Ayers’ ‘70s classic, “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.” Alma channels her inner Minnie on this soulful smooth jazz number, adding some nimble scatting in unison with Oslender’s synth solo midway through before breaking loose with some spirited improv as the piece builds to an uplifting crescendo. Alma closes on an intimate note with the evocative ballad “Another Kind of Love,” which bookends the collection with the equally appealing opener, “Just a Word.”
Says the composer-lyricist about undertaking her first album as a leader: “All of the songs are very close to me, coming from personal experiences. For instance, over the last couple of years I reflected a lot on staying true to myself, experimenting with meditation, yoga and other things for handling stress and being centered and grounded. This is where ‘Heart Pace’ or ‘Hold On To Me” are coming from. Also my love for nature and the grounding effect it has on me influenced songs like ‘Something ‘Bout the Rain.’ And then ‘Walberla’ is actually a mountain in Bavaria that I had a photo shoot on last year. It’s a very mystical kind of place and I wanted to honor it with a song.”
Now poised on ‘rising star’ status, Alma reflected on her own development as a singer: “I didn’t listen to a lot of jazz growing up, nor did my parents. At home, we would listen to The Beatles, Sting (big influence) and, of course, I listened to a lot of classical music through my parents. As a child I spent a lot of time at the opera house with them, listening to rehearsals and also traveling with my mum when she was working abroad. But I never had a clear vision of what I would want to do when I’m grown up. I did start playing the piano at age 5, violin after that for some years and a bit of guitar. The first piano piece I composed was when I was around 10 and I always liked to improvise, but not in a jazz kind of way. My first real song was written when I was 15. After finishing my Abitur and taking a year off, I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do and started studying communication science with psychology. In this year I was also a guest student at the music university in Munich, where I took some classes in jazz harmony and film composition. At that point, I figured I was going do film composition and wrote some orchestral stuff while also composing and playing music for a dance short movie. All during this time I never really identified myself as a singer, but I’ve always been singing and, coming from a classical/musical theatre background, knew the technique. I still didn’t know what jazz really was at that point, so I applied for Jazz Voice, got in and started my studies. It was a great time getting to know all this music, exchanging with other musicians and widening my musical horizon. Until then, I only knew the traditional side of jazz and was so amazed by how much more there is. I can now say that by seeing how much flexibility there is in this genre and by listening to all that is going on, I found that I don’t have to decide between writing ‘simple pop music’ or classical music. There is so much more in between and the genres aren’t as divided as I thought. So now I can just do what I like in music, whatever you’d like to call the outcome.”
The new star on the horizon had these final thoughts about her producer on Alma: “I met Wolfgang on a jam session at International Jazzweek Burghausen in 2019, where we both played. Shortly after, he invited me to sing at one of his concerts and later be a part of his band. He has always been very supportive, helping me with everything, whether it’s a question about the music or the business. Playing with him has been an amazing experience that I can still draw a lot from. Having him by my side on this album has been super helpful. He has so much experience and it has really been a blessing to have him on board. I am very glad we met at that session in Burghausen back in 2019 and he is still a big part of my journey as mentor and friend.”