Few times the sounds of Shanghai, and the colorful mix of cultures in it have been used, and been well characterized in the music produced here. Music production is still in a young stage, musicians and producers are still discovering styles, and developing their creativity, thus until now there hasn’t been many works that have exploit the infinity of sounds of the city, and the variety of styles accessible through the foreigners that come from all over the world to Shanghai. But the albums that had successfully described the landscape of Shanghai until now, quickly have became little treasures. As it happened with Top Floor Circus’ Thirteen Shanghai Classic Pop-Rock Hit Songs, or B6’s Post Haze. Lightbulb Life can well be one of these albums. Hopefully it will reach a big audience, to set well in Shanghai’s collective memory.
Lightbulb Life is the best produced jazz album that we have got in a long time. Willow Neilson clearly dedicated a lot of energy to the composition of the songs, the recording, and the mixing, and let me say that he got extra points for developing a great promotion for it too. I got the album long ago, with a press kit (just that makes me want to cheer), and there is also a very nice website where you can listen most of the songs in it, while reading the stories behind each of them. A great work, I could explain you why I wish more musicians and bands would work the promotion of their music with such dedication and style, I could extend a lot about this, but I’ll just stop here, because this is not the moment to analyze the state of promotion in the local music scene. But I mention it to say there are no weak spots in Lightbulb Life, not even in its promotion.
The album contains twelve songs, nine are composed by Willow Neilson, plus “Sunday Story 星期天的故事” composed and sang by Coco Zhao, “Moonlight Beauties 月光美人” that is a traditional Mongolian song, and “Fake Monk 假行僧” that is a song by Cui Jian arranged here by Neilson, this is the only song not recorded in studio, but at YuyinTang.
Lightbulb Life features musicians that are recognized names in the local jazz scene. Of them all, I feel that Alex Ritz and Leonardo Susi on drums and percussions, and Steinar Nickelsen on keys are the most relevant. Percussions and keyboards are big part of the personality of Lightbulb Life, maybe due to Neilson’s exploration of sounds of Shanghai, like when he plays with construction noise in the song “Secret Society”, a fun tune, with a lot of space for Nickelsen to express his likable style on the keys, and for Susi and Ritz to show the multiple colors of their drums. “Microcosm” the first song of the album, is another great playground for the instruments, I like the swing in it, it’s a bit funky, not as funky as I think Willow is, but it has the same tone of his funk vibes. And when he plays in this song is where I can recall with more clarity images of his live performances. Ritz’ drums solo is specially cool here, he has a reputation for his outstanding solos, and this is a nice imprint of his style.
On Lightbulb Life, Neilson plays with sounds that are very common in Shanghai’s daily life, it could have been very easy to be dragged into them in many wrong ways, but no, there’s no abuse of these sounds, neither wrong positioning among all the songs, or a distasteful sense of humor. To me this is another achievement in Lightbulb Life. So in “Taxi” the much repeated voice of the woman advertising the phone number 57575777 transforms in a really cool tune, with a graceful bass, and even with birds (or are they crickets?) finishing the groovy tempo of the song.
Another nice characteristic of Lightbulb Life is that is full of space for all instruments to shine, though Willow Neilson is a sax player, the sax is not bitching for the spotlight, and when it’s in the center, it’s concise, clear, fun, and kind. Probably the moment that the sax is more in the center of attention, strangely, is on Cui Jian’s “Fake Monk 假行僧”, the last song of the album, the one rock song of the album, where Neilson plays with multiple effects, and exhibits the most strident moments of his sax in the album. This is a very cool version of “Fake Monk 假行僧”. And I think is perfect that is a take recorded at YuyinTang, and a really nice way to finish the album.
“Lightbulb Life”, the song that shares the title of the album, sounds like the very late night of Shanghai, like the last songs played at the end of the jam sessions of Saturdays. Ritz and Susi play fun and sophisticated rhythms, while Nickelsen expands the atmosphere of the tune, and the sax by Neilson finishes the song’s details with a nice and easy to catch melody. The album has many details to discover, you can listen to it several times and still you will find little elements surprising you, and that’s fun of course.
Coco Zhao’s “Sunday Story 星期天的故事” is sweet sweet sweet, Coco’s singing is memorable as usual, and this song fits perfect in this album, the bass by Peter Scherr here deserves a special mention, it’s nice, deep, and soft, playing a great duet with Coco’s singing. Also the bass is exceptionally beautiful in the Mongolian tune “Moonlight Beauties 月光美人”,where it’s a moving bass.
I’m really impressed with Lightbulb Life. I’ve never been as impressed with Willow’s performances as I am now with his work on Lightbulb Life. I didn’t realize the extend of his ability, and talent. He is a solid composer, arranger, and producer. I like a lot the spirit he created for Lightbulb Life. And I really hope this album gets you as it got me. I believe it can be a way in for people that are not yet into jazz, and a great invitation for them to get closer to Shanghai’s jazz scene. I also think (wish) that Lightbulb Life will bring new energy, expanding, and inspiring jazz in Shanghai, and well, the whole universe of course.
Willow Neilson will release Lightbulb Life at JZ Club tomorrow Thursday, June 14th. There’s no entry fee, a nice push to buy the CD. Guest musicians will be Coco Zhao, La Mu, Dana Shellmire, and to open the show the first set will be by Caitlin Reilly.
Find more information about Lightbulb Life, its songs, production, and about Willow Neilson on his official website.
Totally recommended if you are not in Shanghai, buy Lightbulb Life on its Bandcamp page.