The velvety English pop group Sade, featuring the gorgeous, smoky-voiced singer of the same name, boasts a stellar 30-year career, despite recording irregularly. The band has released only six albums, beginning with 1985's Diamond Life and Sade's mission statement single, "Smooth Operator." But whenever the group proffers a new release, such as 2010's almost aggressive acoustic trip-hop, Soldier of Love (its first since 2000's soft hip-hop masterpiece Lovers Rock), Sade wins a Grammy (she has four), before receding from the limelight. The band has remained the same since its inception, but this is its first tour in a decade.
"Sade the person has a totally different concept of time," says band co-mastermind, Stewart Matthewman, provider of trademark sax and minimal guitar since record executives lured the singer away from the big, elaborate dance band Pride. She chose band members Paul Denman (bass/songwriter), Andrew Hale (keyboards/songwriter) and Matthewman to follow her to worldwide stardom, and they have sold more than 50 million albums.
"For Sade there is just no definite time that things will happen," Matthewman says to explain the career gaps many bands would consider retirement phases. "I don't know if it comes from her being African, but for her there are really only two times: sooner or later. Also, whatever she does, she does that thing 100 percent, so she doesn't do music if there's anything else going on in her life. And in order to write songs, she also has to live a bit and have things happen to her, because she writes from the heart and from experience. In the last several years she's gotten settled into a new home, has new family around. So now, finally, this part of her life can be about music."
Unlike the vocalist, Matthewman is a continually active musician. He does dub remixes and film score work under the name Cottonbelly, and he has recorded for Sony in the band Sweetback, which is largely Sade without its namesake, playing either smooth instrumental music or working with guest vocalists such as Matthewman's frequent collaborator, hip-hop/R&B crooner Maxwell.
Then, every once in a while when the stars align, and the world gets a little Sade — or a big, grand Sade. This tour supports the band's second greatest hits set, The Ultimate Collection.
"I couldn't imagine when we put our first record out that we'd be doing this show we are doing now, on this scale," Matthewman says about the tour. "It's almost theatrical but more like an opera or a ballet than a rock show. Settings vary between each song, and it's a very odd playlist where we go from a slow jazzy song, to an upbeat one like 'Paradise,' then something ethereal with just piano and vocals, then it will sort of break into a big band thing."
Sade's work has tended to be more minimalist, and Matthewman has said that has worked for him and fellow bandmates — intermediate musicians working within their limitations. But he credits the singer for making it special: "Sade is a master of space," he says. "In music and art and fashion and architecture, she doesn't like big complicated things, so with music she is great at clearing stuff out. Like when I've laid down a bunch of guitar tracks, she comes and takes out everything but the best bits. She has an amazing ear."