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Interviews

Kenny Wheeler: The Making of "Mirrors"

By Published: March 11, 2013
Fast-forward a decade, and Churchill found himself performing with Wheeler in Berlin. "The wonderful thing about jazz," says Churchill, "is that if you just keep your nose clean and really commit yourself to the music, then eventually you will work with these people because they just want to work with people who are committed. If they think you have the best interests of the music at heart, they give of their time, and you learn from them."

For Churchill, however, the Berlin performance of Mirrors wasn't as smooth a ride as perhaps he had hoped for. "We were quite pushed for time, and it was fairly hairy," he recalls. "I always thought that we needed to do this again. It was only when I got the London Vocal Project together that I thought, 'OK, we're going to put this in our repertoire.'"

The London Vocal Project is a subplot within the Mirrors story and another example of the forces of inspiration. A couple of years after graduating, Churchill began teaching at the Guildhall—arranger's piano and then harmony and ear training, which were feeder classes to the composition class. "Then I started to teach Ken's music as well," says Churchill. "Students wanted to know how it worked and how to approach it as improvisers because we were playing a lot of it."

Churchill also ran a vocal group at the Guildhall until he left in 2008. Though Churchill had finished with the Guildhall, his former students hadn't necessarily finished with him. "After they had graduated, they decided they wanted to carry on singing, so they came to me and asked me to direct them," explains Churchill. The group would meet on Monday nights and was soon opened up to jazz instrumentalists who wanted to sing. "It was a place for singers to meet from across the conservatoires, because these colleges don't tend to cross-fertilize very much," says Churchill. "The first thing we did was the Mirrors suite."

Shortly after, Churchill's Monday-night vocal group did a concert with saxophonist/composer Sir John Dankworth
John Dankworth
John Dankworth
1927 - 2010
saxophone
and singer Dame Cleo Laine
Cleo Laine
Cleo Laine
b.1927
vocalist
at the Royal Festival Hall, singing Dankworth's music: "We called ourselves a project choir because we want to do things like that. What I'm trying to do with this group is to show that jazz composers can and should write for voices. Many do write for voices, but they maybe write for choirs that aren't used to the style and that sensibility, and what I try to do with the LVP is to create an ensemble that encourages people to write for us.

"They're all young professionals," Churchill continues. "They've got their own albums out. Some of them run their own choirs, which is what I wanted. One of the reasons I formed the choir was to use it as a skills- sharing thing. They're not only learning pieces, they are also learning how to direct and how to run choirs. It's like an old-fashioned apprenticeship."

In 2009, The London Vocal Project gave a performance of Wheeler's Mirrors suite at the Vortex in London with Winstone and the rhythm section of pianist Nikki Iles
Nikki Iles
Nikki Iles
- 2012
piano
, bassist Steve Watts
Steve Watts
Steve Watts
b.1961
and drummer James Maddren, but sans Wheeler. "The LVP has instrumentalists in there," says Churchill. There are saxophone players and trumpet players, and they stepped up." Then there was another performance at Ronnie Scott's. "It was quite important to keep it current, to keep singing it," says Churchill, who seemed to be driven to keep the flame of Mirrors alive.

Gathering wind in its sails, the LVP was invited to collaborate with singer/composer Bobby McFerrin
Bobby McFerrin
Bobby McFerrin
b.1950
vocalist
in a concert. "He'd just put out VOCAbuLarieS (EmArcy, 2010), which has a lot of astonishing vocal music," says Churchill. "It was really quite difficult. We started to make it the focal point of our Monday nights, and it really raised our game. It solidified us as a group."

Everything finally fell into place when the LVP performed the Mirrors suite at the 2011 London Jazz Festival. It was the final push that Wheeler needed. "It sounded so good, I thought it would be nice to record it," the trumpeter and composer explains. Churchill adds: "I think, in his head, Kenny thought this was the last great unrecorded suite he'd written, which it is, and it should be documented. We had to decide if we were going to do it properly, because a lot of these sorts of things are done on a wing and a prayer and lots of good will." The final piece in the jigsaw was Edition Records, pianist Nikki Iles' label. "Dave Stapleton was really committed," says Churchill of the label's multitalented co-founder, director and jazz pianist.


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