by Jason A. Bermiller
What do Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers Band, Herbie Hancock, Keith Urban, Todd Rundgren, Prince and Jackson Browne have in common? Other than being seasoned hit-makers, each has a connection to Tal Wilkenfeld, who has toured
or recorded with all these name acts and more. The young Aussie bass virtuoso has already shown herself to be a courageous risk-taker, like the time she corrected Sting on a tricky bass-part, prompting his praise and respect. She takes real chances with
her music, seemingly with no net in place, in case of a fall. And just as watching a tight-rope walker can draw gasps from an audience, so too does Wilkenfeld on her new CD Love Remains.
Work on this latest collection of songs began in 2016, when Wilkenfeld was a tour-opener for The Who and as she was working with Prince just prior to his death. Love Remains is produced in fits and starts by Paul Stacey with executive production by
Jackson Browne. That last name should be a tip-off of the surprising stylistic departure Wilkenfeld has taken since her 2007 instrumental debut, Transformation. That was the album that earned the jazz prodigy the status as 2008’s “Most Exciting New Player”
by the readers of Bass Player magazine.
“Corner Painter” opens the CD with a promising instrumental prelude of sirens and distortion, quickly emerging as an indie-rock styled song, with a lead vocal no one has really heard from Wilkenfeld until now, and an angry one at that. It features Tom
Petty & The Heartbreakers’s Benmont Tench on pump organ, who says in a recent promo video for Love Remains, “I knew her as an instrumentalist, but I wasn’t prepared for her talent as a singer and songwriter.” Browne agrees, “Sure, there are instrumentalists
who are very good writers, but I can’t think of another instrumentalist who has ventured into the area that Tal has entered into now, singing songs from her own experience”. The song breaks into a rather repetitive and routine guitar riff, which is expected
and excusable, given it is a song about a person painting himself into a corner.
The album recovers from this initial misstep with “One Thing After Another”, a song whose title seems to be making a joke. It rages about the transition from one moment in life to another; the layered vocals and dense instrumentation reflect that message
structurally and sonically.
This is the point on Love Remains where Wilkenfeld’s jazzy bent ends. It leans into more of a folk-rock/alternative pop sound for the remainder of the record. It is not unlike the sonic terrain Jackson Browne traversed on his last record, which had a sprinkling
of Wilkenfeld’s unique, stylish bass-playing. As Love Remains continues, her jazz sensibility is submerged into more recognizable and less startling compositions.
It’s often noted that bass players make good band leaders because they possess a deep sense of structure. Whether that’s true or not, the disc has some songs that would otherwise be rather mainstream, even lack-lustre, but because Wilkenfeld has the great sense
to work not just on melody and tone, she also plays with pacing and taunts us with textures. The songs on Love Remains shine more brightly than they otherwise would, if they had been handled by a less adventurous artist.
“Haunted Love” could have been either an example of successful high-wire risk-taking or an irredeemable fall into self-indulgence. Whenever an orchestra is employed, a song can either be lifted to a new dimension or sink into a morass of maybes and
might-have-beens, becoming an ugly caricature of what the song might have achieved. The history of jazz and pop is littered with such flourishes of folly. “Haunted Love” is worth a few listens, as it shows Wilkenfeld has the wherewithal to not overpower
the song with excessive orchestration, avoiding a considerable fall off that tightrope she sets herself upon. Here the orchestra serves to support, rather than draw down, the melody. Nevertheless, it is the one time on the CD when Wilkenfeld really teeters,
falling into a pit of overproduction and melancholia.
“Under The Sun” illuminates the central mood of the album: light, even delicate fare, flavoured with grit and bile, full of exciting textures. Wilkenfeld reveals herself to be a dreamy, ethereal vocalist, delivering a song boiling over with hard
messages. Everything is balanced on the tightrope now. No gasps, just admiration, as she confidently bridges this artistic gap with fearlessness.
Released as one of the CD’s singles, “Killing Me” is one of the stronger songs here, a radio friendly piece that could attract a new audience for the once Jaco-inspired jazzer. It boasts a driving drum beat with sufficient rock emphases to perhaps
penetrate pop and rock playlists. At the same time, anyone who has witnessed Wilkenfeld’s bass-playing with Jeff Beck will already recognize her bottom-end ferocity, a ferocity that matches the gruff guitar riffs of the grandmaster. When Beck first
met Wilkenfeld, he laughs at the memory, “We were upstairs playing within an hour. She was amazing.”
The album closes with “Pieces Of Me”, highlighting Wilkenfeld’s delicate vocals, yet with hard-edged guitars acting as a foil. Again her sensibility of structure and texture, balanced between dreaminess and grit, guides her across a gulf, where she
could have taken a terrible plunge into mundane terrain. Tench returns, playing piano on this last track. A drum sound lacking in punctuation and punch could have toppled the performance utterly, but Wilkenfeld avoids a complete fall by balancing the
musical modes and themes in this piece.
In all, this first vocal high-flying act is uneven with moments of brilliance. There is little doubt Wilkenfeld wants to expand her audience into pop and rock, without sacrificing too many of her respectable jazz chops. To that end, it will be
exhilarating to experience her trying to balance this high-wire act, as she treads further down the line. For now, Love Remains.
Artist: Tal Wilkenfeld
Album: Love Remains
Release Date: March 15, 2019
Tal Wilkenfeld: : vocals, acoustic guitar, 12 string acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, acoustic baritone guitar, bass organ, kalimba, hi-hats
Paul Stacey: electric guitar; synthesizer, Solina, clavinet, Mellotron
Blake Mills: electric guitar, electric baritone guitar, bass guitar
Sonya Kitchell: electric guitar, background vocals
Benmont Tench: pump organ, piano
Zac Rae: piano, Mellotron, orchestrion, marimba
Michael Landau: dobro
Shiva Ramamurthi: violin
Jay Bellarose: drums
Jeremy Stacey: drums
Molly Sarle: background vocals
David Arch: woodwind arrangement: Jamie Talbot: flutes/ clarinets; Phil Todd: flutes; Dave Fuest: clarinets
David Arch: string arrangement: violins: Perry Montague-Mason (leader), Peter Hanson (leader of 2nds), John Bradbury, Oli Langford, Jackie Hartley, Dai Emanuel, Chris Tombling, Mark Berrow, Tom Pigott-Smith, Cathy Thompson, Patrick Kiernan;
violas: Peter Lale (1st), Andy Parker, Rachel Bolt, Max Baillie. Celli: Dave Daniels (1st), Frank Schaefer, Chris Worsey, Nick Cooper.
1. Corner Painter, 4:32
2. Counterfeit, 4:05
3. Hard To Be Alone, 4:55
4. Haunted Love, 6:27
5. Love Remains, 3:23
6. Fistful Of Glass, 2:30
7. Under The Sun, 5:28
8. One Thing After Another, 4:25
9. Killing Me, 3:53
10. Pieces Of Me, 3:35