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Kenny Wheeler: The Making of "Mirrors"


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It often comes as a surprise to people when they discover that trumpeter/flugelhornist/composer Kenny Wheeler is not British. Well, not British born, for although born in Toronto, Canada, in 1930, Wheeler has spent the last 60 years living in England, which surely makes him as English as Ploughman's Lunch or a pint of bitter. The recording Mirrors (Edition Records, 2013) sees the veteran team up with singer Norma Winstone and the London Vocal Project, a 25-piece choir directed by Pete Churchill, to interpret the poetry of Stevie Smith, Lewis Carroll and W. B. Yeats. The results are nothing short of spectacular.

"Kenny's astonishingly melodic," says Churchill. "He rivals anything. He is our [Duke] Ellington," he says, echoing a sentiment expressed years ago by Winstone. "He's ours!" the LVP Director says, laughing.

In a long and distinguished career, Wheeler has certainly cast his net wide, and the breadth of his projects is revealing of a restless creative mind. From '60s-'70s British free-jazz groups and trombonist Mike Gibbs' jazz-rock band to the chamber-jazz trio Azimuth, and from the drummer-less quartet of guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Dave Holland and saxophonist Lee Konitz to collaborations with Lebanese oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil and singers David Sylvian and Joni Mitchell, Wheeler is the man for all seasons.

He has composed and arranged for large and small ensembles alike, but what sets Mirrors apart from any other recording in Wheeler's extensive discography is that it represents the first time that poems have provided the inspiration for his music. The story behind Mirrors, it could be said, is one of inspiration from start to finish.

The origins of Mirrors go back a fair number of years: "It was actually written more than 20 years ago for someone in Italy," explains Wheeler. "There are little changes, but I think the music is pretty much the same as it used to be." The core of the Mirrors suite then as now revolves around English poet Stevie Smith's (1902—1971) works. Wheeler had spent some time hunting down the right poems, but in end he was drawn to the directness of Smith's language: "A lot of poems I looked at were quite grand, with quite grand language, but Stevie Smith's is like street poetry. It's like Cockney street poetry."

One change from the original work to the 2013 recorded version of Mirrors is the inclusion of a few poems by Lewis Carroll and W. B. Yeats. It might seem a little odd that Wheeler didn't make the suite one inspired exclusively by Smith's poems, but the reason, as he explains, was simple enough. "It would have been nice," he admits, "but I just couldn't find enough Stevie Smith poems to make that happen. That's why I wrote a couple of tunes based on other poets that I like very much."

The surreal images of the three Carroll poems, "Humpty Dumpty," "Tweedledum" and "Through the Looking Glass," bring a fantastical quality to Mirrors. "They're a little bit odd," Wheeler says of the poems, "and I like the oddness of them." Wheeler wraps his music around the Carroll poems like wondrous robes and brings them effortlessly into the fold.

It's taken a while for Mirrors to see the light of day as a recording, following its Italian premiere 21 years ago. Long-time Wheeler collaborator Norma Winstone picks up the story: "When Kenny brought the music to England, he wanted English singers, and we had Liane Carroll, Anita Wardell, Pete Churchill and Iain MacKenzie." For the small number of gigs where Mirrors was performed—including the 1998 Berlin Jazz Festival—the rhythm section was pianist John Taylor, bassist Chris Laurence and drummer Paul Clarvis. Though Wheeler could only rustle up a few gigs for this music, Winstone felt at the time that, for her old friend, there was some unfinished business. "We only did Mirrors a couple of times, but I knew Kenny always really wanted to do something else with it."

The catalyst for reviving Mirrors was Pete Churchill. Churchill first came across Wheeler in 1986. Back then, Wheeler did a lot of work with college bands and used to visit the Guildhall School of Music and Drama—where Churchill was a composition and arranging student—on a regular basis. Churchill recalls vividly his first encounter with Wheeler. "I remember walking into a rehearsal room and thinking, 'Oh my God!' It was a suite he wrote called 'Little Suite.' It's just an astonishing tune; I'd never heard anything like it. I was amazed," says Churchill. "Then what happened was one of his scores got misplaced, and I had to reconstruct his score from the parts. I had to unravel it. It was a defining moment for me."

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 and singer Dame Cleo Laine 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, bassist Steve Watts 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 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.

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 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, 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

"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, 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."

The history of Mirrors so far suggests that it's not going to disappear, and all the protagonists are keen to collaborate further along the same lines. "I think Kenny has the bit between his teeth," ventures Winstone. "He's always looking for new poems." Churchill confirms Winstone's feeling: "Kenny is already looking at other poems, such as Langston Hughes, another Lewis Carroll and another Stevie Smith. I've got to score them up, and then we'll start work on those and hopefully record them sometime. Kenny has got into it big time. He's excited about it, I think."

It seems as if another go in the recording studios is more likely than a UK tour, given the logistics in moving such a large number of people around from city to city, but the magic of Mirrors is that it has musical appeal that stretches far beyond the confines of jazz. "It's a festival thing, isn't it? It's a major event," says Churchill.

It would be easy to picture Mirrors winning over crowds in almost any type of festival setting: on balmy summer nights in the castle at the Edinburgh Festival, on the main stage at Glastonbury at sunset or at the champion of staging premieres, Cheltenham Festival. If the Mirrors project proves anything, it's surely that with dedicated people and hard work the seemingly impossible can come true. As Lewis Carroll's Queen told Alice, "Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

The launch of Mirrors, featuring Wheeler, Winstone, the London Vocal Project and jazz quartet will be held at Kings Place, London, on May 25th, 2013 at 8 p.m.

Pete Churchill, director of the London Vocal Project will give a pre- concert talk in the St. Pancrass Room at 7 p.m. The talk is free to concert ticket holders.

Selected Discography

Kenny Wheeler/Norma Winstone/London Vocal Project, Mirrors (Edition Records, 2013)

Kenny Wheeler Big Band, The Long Waiting (CAM Jazz, 2012)

Norma Winstone, Stories Yet to Tell (ECM Records, 2010)

Kenny Wheeler/Colors Jazz Orchestra, Nineteen Plus One (Astarte Records, 2009)

Norma Winstone, Distances (ECM Records, 2008)
Norma Winstone, Amoroso (Only More So) (Enodoc Records, 2007)

Norma Winstone/NDR Bigband, It's Later than you Think (Rent a Dog, 2006)

Kenny Wheeler, What Now? (CAM Jazz, 2005)

Kenny Wheeler, Dream Sequence (Psi, 2003)

Kenny Wheeler, A Long Time Ago (ECM Records, 1999)

Norma Winstone, Manhattan in the Rain (Enodoc Records, 1998)

Azimuth, How it was then, never again (ECM Records, 1995)

Kenny Wheeler, Music for Large and Small Ensembles (ECM Records, 1990)

Norma Winstone, Somewhere Called Home (ECM Records, 1986)

Azimuth, The Touchstone (ECM Records, 1978)

Azimuth, Azimuth (ECM, 1977)

Kenny Wheeler, Gnu High (ECM Records, 1976)

Kenny Wheeler, Song for Someone (Incus, 1973)

Kenny Wheeler with the John Dankworth Orchestra, Windmill Tilter (Fontana, 1969)

Photo Credit

Pages 1-3: Tim Dickesen

Page 4: Nick Smart

Page 5: Alex Brenner

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