Alice Zawadzki beguiles Dean Street with China Lane


Alice Zawadzki’s
highly original and eclectic debut album China Lane has already been well received on disc. Its launch at Soho’s Pizza Express Jazz Club on Tuesday and Wednesday this week showed off Zawadzki’s performing panache, and confirmed that her lustrous vocal range is the real live deal.

This would be an extraordinary collection of songs from anyone; the fact that Zawadzki’s debut release combines accomplished original songs and adaptations of songs in Ladino, Polish and Sephardic gives her disc rare impact for a first release. Despite the historical and generic variety, these songs are united by Zawadzki’s ability to convey sorrow, loss and with a maturity and dark humour beyond her years.

Alternating between violin, piano, and vocals, with the composure to sing and play violin at the same time, Zawadzki is a commanding, intense performer, her classically-trained voice both powerful and delicate. The foreign-language adaptations – ‘Uti Mitt Hjärta’, ‘Dicho Me Habían Dicho’, ‘Troche Milosci’, and ‘Indome Para Marsilia’ (no, I don’t either, but they’re songs of heartbreak) – dominated the first set, their gliding, yearning, muscular lyrics managing to be both emotionally intimate yet culturally remote.


'Low Sun; Lovely Pink Light’ introduced yet another flavour combination, this time of Americana, with a sumptuous, sensual close harmony trio of Zawadzki, Emilia Martensson and Fini Bearman (all present on both recording and live gig, pictured above) accompanied by Alex Roth’s vivid and atmospheric guitar. The three singers together couldn’t help sounding a little like Wagner’s Rhinemaidens, transported to Texas or Tennessee. You could almost see the tumbleweed rolling down Dean Street.

The meaning of words, and not just the sound they make, clearly matters for Zawadzki too. Her own songs are characterised by frank, grainy social observation and In “You as a Man” she describes the relationship as “like cutting off your feet to pay for shoes”, and “China Lane”, about an area of Manchester where Zawadzki used to live, has the kind of poignant observational detail that would do Jarvis Cocker proud.

If there’s a criticism, it would only be of the set order, which placed the most controlled arrangements all together in the first set. Zawadzki dominated musically until “Cat”, which comes a more sensible second on the album, opened the second set. Her excellent band - Peter Lee, Tom McReady, Jon Scott and Alex Roth - accompanied expertly, of course, but it would have been fun to hear them stretched earlier.

Five years in the making, this collection deserves to launch Zawadzki’s career like a rocket. Though she’s playing for a jazz audience at the moment, and the band had moments in the second set when it could run riot, there are clearly elements of world, folk and indie music, stored up in Zawadzki’s ouevre. She has appeal beyond jazz, and has the stage charisma to support that promise. Expect to see her on the festival circuit soon.

– Matthew Wright (story and photos)