Everything's Coming Up Roses for Velvet Alibi
Sparked into life upon seeing Nile Rodgers and Chic in Derry, the rising 12-piece are now electrifying the city with their own live shows and have their sights set next on the Jazz Festival
With roots in jazz, Motown and gospel, Velvet Alibi is a 12-piece musical ensemble based in Derry~Londonderry. Their first single, 'Into The Light', was released on March 20 and the band will bring the curtain down on this year’s City of Derry Jazz Festival on April 30.
Founded in 2015 by vocalist Anna Nolan and bassist Rohan Armstrong, the North West collective defies easy definition, with music that 'zigzags' between multiple genres, a line-up that is fluid, and creative offshoots already beginning to bloom. As Nolan explains, the bombastic live disco funk of Nile Rodgers and Chic provided the first spark of inspiration.
'About two years ago, Rohan and I went to see Chic when they did a live show here. We thought "Wow, that’s something we’d really like to do" – great songs, a big band and fun, funky sort of vibe with lots of different great musicians.'
During her years as musical director at the Inishowen Gospel Choir, Nolan has grown a wide and varied network of musicians. This is how she and Armstrong know each other – he played bass for the choir – and the choir’s other musical director Neil Burns is another member of what she refers to as Velvet Alibi’s ‘core’ musicians.
Keys player Burns (AKA Comrade Hat) is joined in this golden circle by Joseph Leighton, named one of Moving On Music’s 'Emerging Artists' for 2016-17, and Curtis Cunningham, a drummer who has recently returned to Derry after a period of training in the USA. Around these five accomplished musicians orbits an ever-changing line-up, including trumpeters, saxophonists, singers, and percussionists.
'We guest a lot of horn players,' says Nolan, 'so we have worked with people like Rick Swann and Meilana Gillard from Belfast, and Lewis Smith who worked with the Brian Irvine Ensemble.
'We have structured songs as the basis [of our music], but we give a lot of space ‘in between’ for people to improvise.'
With so many accomplished musicians from jazz backgrounds, improvisation and fluidity is a key feature of Velvet Alibi’s sound, and the live experience they offer.
'Every gig’s different - I don’t think we’ve ever had the same line-up of people. We never know what’s going to happen; we’re always watching each other to see what’s going to happen next.'
Released only last month, Velvet Alibi’s debut track has so far been well-received, and it’s getting plenty of airtime on local radio stations. It’s a song Nolan describes as 'ambitious', but one that captures the 1970s Motown vibe that has inspired the band.
As you might expect, the improvisational style brought its own challenges when Velvet Alibi took to the recording studio.
'It’s hard for us, because we’re always hearing our songs in a new light,' says Nolan. 'You record it one way, and then it develops and becomes different, and you think "Why didn’t I record it that way?"
'I guess you just have to look at each recording as a snapshot in time.'
In an effort to render the electrifying magic of their live performances – that sense of no two shows being the same - there are plans to record their next few songs 100% live in the studio, sessions which will also be filmed and released.
The band have taken an unconventional approach to the industry, opting to record for the first time after nearly two years on the gig circuit, including a couple of mini-tours. It was a deliberate approach, designed to give these shapeshifting songs room to breathe and grow before capturing that first ‘snapshot’ in the studio.
Unconventional they may be, but there is no question over Velvet Alibi's productivity, having amassed a catalogue of original material large enough to sustain a three-hour show if necessary.
Much of this has been recorded, both at Derry-based Smalltown America Studio, and at Millbank Studios outside Lisburn, with Michael Mormecha (Mojo Fury/Malojian/Loris). More releases are planned throughout 2017, and the band also aim to build towards a tour of Europe.
As well as the big festival closing gig in Sandino’s on April 30, Sunday April 30 sees the first outing in Bennigan’s Bar, for a side project named Fuchsia Realm. Velvet Alibi is the name of a red rose, so it’s a clever nod to a subtle floral theme, and expresses a softer, folk-music face to the band.
'Rohan and I had several softer, more reflective songs that just didn’t fit in to Velvet Alibi,' Nolan explains. 'So, with Joleen from the Henry Girls on harp, we’ll be doing a stripped back set as a five-piece.'
With more Irish dates to be announced, a festival in England to play, more video and audio content to be released this year, and even plans forming to tour Europe, any music fan not on board with this eclectic, evolving 12-piece is soon going to need one heck of an alibi indeed.
Velvet Alibi round off Sandino's Bar's 'Big Funkin Jazz Sunday' from 10.00pm on April 30 as part of the City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival. Debut single 'Into The Light' is also available to purchase as a digital download through Bandcamp. Stay up to date with news of future releases and forthcoming gigs at www.facebook.com/velvetalibimusic. View the full Jazz Festival programme at www.cityofderryjazzfestival.com.