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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."

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