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Kenny Wheeler: The Making of "Mirrors"

By Published: March 11, 2013
"It keeps changing key—Kenny loves jumping about in different keys— and it keeps going up and up and up, and I have to sing 'dim hair' high up in the lap of the Gods, and that's difficult," admits Winstone. "A lot of the time, I was preparing myself for that jump." In spite of the technical challenges involved in singing "The Lover Mourns," Winstone is clearly smitten with Wheeler's melodies. "It's such a lovely melody. It's so beautiful, I'd like to just sing the melody without the words. And the countermelodies that are going on in the choir were originally written; they haven't been added. They were always there, sung by one person or perhaps two people. It's such a gorgeous composition," says Winstone. "The music really suits the words very well."

Winstone also relished the opportunity to sing uncommon lyrics. "Pale browhh ... dim hair," she recites with a sense of wonder. "You're never going to get to sing those kinds of things in a standards song. They're lovely words to sing." With both melodies and words so striking, Winstone admits that she had to concentrate not to be completely seduced by one at the expense of the other. "I'm trying to sing the words so that they have full weight, as they do when they are read in the poem. You're concentrating on getting the music right, and you can be distracted from the meaning of the words, and then you realize, 'This is poetry I'm singing here,'" Winstone says, laughing.

Wheeler's arrangements of Smith's poems also provided Winstone with pleasure and challenges in equal measure. "I love Stevie Smith. She was great at writing very short poems." On the quirky "My Hat," Winstone observes, "You get this hat, and it leads to all kinds of things including marrying the King and walking on the palace walls." Laughs Winstone, "It's completely daft and barmy, but there's something really great about it. Of course, the way Kenny wrote it, he kept changing the key, so I had to keep singing those same words, and so each time I'd try to make it a little different—maybe I'd make it a bit more exaggerated or a bit more wistful. It was a bit of a challenge, but I love that piece."

Likewise for Churchill and the LVP, Wheeler's compositions posed challenges. "Singing the harmony of 'My Soul' was just amazing. We had to work very hard to get that together. The choir did a fantastic job," acknowledges Churchill. "I can't pick a favorite, but I'm a sucker for Kenny's tunes. There are so many little time changes and really playful things, and that's a side of Kenny I hadn't really seen. There are surprises at every turn." Wheeler is also quick to praise Churchill and the LVP. "He's been very strong," says Wheeler of the LVP director. "He's a great conductor and a great musician. He really gets the best out of the choir. It was a wonderful feeling to hear them singing my music. It's a great choir."

Pianist Nikki Iles also makes a significant contribution to Mirrors, both as accompanist and soloist. Her association with Winstone stretches back for some time now, and the singer pays tribute to Iles: "There's a kind of empathy there. We like the same things, and we like the same kind of music. She's very sensitive and doesn't want to shine all the time. It's always enjoyable; there are no egos. It's wonderful. She's concerned about playing the right thing behind me. She's a great musician."

With surprises lurking around every corner in Wheeler's writing, a rock- solid rhythm section was essential, and it must have been a no-brainer to bring in Iles, bassist Steve Watts and drummer James Maddren, not forgetting the ever-versatile saxophonist Mark Lockheart
Mark Lockheart
Mark Lockheart

, all of whom play with Winstone in her group the Printmakers. "Yes, I guess it was," says Winstone. "James Maddren recently joined the Printmakers on the last couple of gigs we did, and it seemed to gel. It seemed natural to get people who are used to playing together." Winstone's parts were all recorded with the rhythm section. "It was all done live," says Winstone. "I never went over and dropped anything in. It was all done there and then."

The official launch of Mirrors will take place in May, and everyone is clearly excited at the prospect of performing the music live. Whether Mirrors will have a life beyond that concert, perhaps a tour of the UK, is uncertain. "I don't know. Nobody does tours in the UK anymore, do they?" laughs Wheeler. "I would love to do a tour in the UK, but I don't know if it's going to happen or not. I'll be glad when the performance in May happens. I hope somebody might decide to do a tour of it, which would be good."

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