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Kenny Wheeler: The Making of "Mirrors"

Ian Patterson By

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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?"
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