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Interviews

Kenny Wheeler: The Making of "Mirrors"

By Published: March 11, 2013
Though everyone was fully committed, Winstone is in no doubt as to Churchill's importance in the realization of recording Mirrors. "Pete Churchill's energy really brought all this together. It probably wouldn't have happened without him," Winstone acknowledges. "Pete worked very hard and brought it to the attention of people. It's a lot of work getting the parts together, and there are a lot of people. It's a lot of organization, and I think Pete was really responsible for getting it to work."

"It was a labor of love," says Churchill. I had to marshal all the forces, oversee how the week in the recording studio went, make Kenny comfortable and make efficient use of time. I had to get the choir to get really inside the music. I did crack the whip, but it was all worth it." For Churchill and the members of the LVP, the presence of Wheeler and Winstone was something special. "As singers, the choir completely idolizes Norma—she is the great British jazz singer," states Churchill. "They spent all their time at college transcribing her music and singing her lyrics. So for them to suddenly be part of that was thrilling.

"You could see they were moved by it all, just seeing Kenny and Norma working together. It was astonishing. I realized that Ken and Norma hadn't recorded together for a long time," adds Churchill. "That was one of the things about Mirrors—it brought them together again on record. It was very moving to see them together. It's a historical pairing, isn't it?"

Wheeler and Winstone's collaborations date back to the late 1960s. "I first met Kenny, I think it was in 1969, when I worked in the Little Theater Club in St. Martin's Lane," remembers Winstone. "It was in the early days of the British free-music scene. [Drummer] John Stevens
John Stevens
b.1940
had just started getting into free music, and he said, 'Oh, you must come and sing.' I had no idea what it was, but I went along, and Kenny was there for one of the sessions. So was [bassist] Dave Holland
Dave Holland
Dave Holland
b.1946
bass
, before he went to America. All the new young people used to go and play at the Little Theater Club in St. Martin's Lane. One day, Kenny and I got talking, and he said: 'I've got a broadcast coming up. Would you like to sing? I'll arrange a song for you.' And he did. Then the next time he had another broadcast, when I got there I found out he'd written me in as part of the band. That was really great because it was a way for me to get more involved in the music."

Wheeler and Winstone's most famous collaboration was the chamber- jazz ensemble Azimuth—with pianist John Taylor—which yielded five important albums between 1977 and 1994. Winstone has often sung on Wheeler's big-band projects, and few know his music as well as the English singer. "It's been a whole lifetime of music. I can't imagine my life without his music somewhere in it. I feel so lucky to be have been standing next to him on all those big-band projects and trying to match my sound with his." says Winstone. "He never ceases to amaze me. You think you know where the music is going, and then he turns another corner and finishes up somewhere else. He is always surprising."

Wheeler's flugelhorn chops on Mirrors are in great shape, and his powers show few signs of waning, which is pretty remarkable given that he turned 83 in January, 2013. "It's extraordinary," says Winstone. "He doesn't play with quite the same sound he used to have, but the passion is still there. I just love the way he plays a melody, never mind his improvising. He has a hell of a lot of soul in the way he plays a melody, which I think sometimes people miss. They're more into his writing or the excellence of his playing and his influence. But just hearing him play a melody is something else."

The empathy between these veteran sparring partners is deeply embedded. "She sounds like she sings like I play. I get that impression sometimes," says Wheeler. "I've learned from him," says Winstone. "I've learned from him, trying to match him." Inspiration abounds every which way on Mirrors, but, as Winstone explains, Wheeler's writing presented a challenge for her. "Some of the pieces were quite tricky to sing," she admits. "The range that they are written in is not a range that I use all the time, and some of the pieces are very high or concentrate around a range that's a bit higher than I usually do."

Yeats' poem "The Lover Mourns" was one such case. "I love it," says Winstone. "I love desolate-sounding music, and the words are so good."

Pale brows, still hands and dim hair

I had a beautiful friend

And dreamed that the old despair

Would end in love in the end

She looked in my heart one day

And saw your image was there

She has gone weeping away


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