Review: Kenny Wheeler, Mirrors Suite:
London Vocal Project/ Norma Winstone/Pete Churchill
(Vortex, September 24th , 2009)
“Whatever names you give me
A breath of fresh air,
A change for you.”
These are the eloquent last words both of Stevie Smith’s poem Black March , and of the infectiously rhythmic closing number from Kenny Wheeler’s Mirrors Suite. Sylvia Plath wrote of Stevie Smith that she was one of those poets: ‘possessed by their rhythms as by the rhythms of their own breathing.’ And that is exactly what Kenny Wheeler’s score captures.
A packed Vortex cheered a very rare performance of this work by Pete Churchill’s 20-piece choir the London Vocal Project (photographed at a residential course in France above) , vocal soloist Norma Winstone, “the queen of European jazz singing” according to one German paper earlier this year, and a flawless rhythm section of Nikki Iles on piano, bassist Steve Watts and in-demand young drummer James Maddren.
The Mirrors Suite was commissioned by a festival in Italy some 15 years ago. It consists of settings of Lewis Carroll, Stevie Smith and W.B Yeats. It was originally designed for five voices. Performances are rare because it requires a big commitment of rehearsal time by the singers, and is also not to be attempted by anything less than a killer rhythm section.
The music manages to be completey approachable, pleasing to the ear, of great beauty. Melodies, as Pete Churchill mentioned, have simply poured out of Kenny Wheeler. But this is at the same time a harmonically intricate sound-world. As a first-time listener, I was impressed by the extent to which the vocal group had not just sussed, but really started to inhabit these intriguing melodies and sound easy and natural, made their corners seem like straight lines.
This Vortex performance represented the culmination of two years’ work by the London Vocal Project, a choir of ex-conservatoire students, of whom many formed part of a vocal group run by Pete Churchill during his time teaching at Guildhall, and who of their own volition clubbed together and persuaded Churchill to direct them. Long may they continue!!!
The hors d’oeuvre had been a set from Mishka Adams ‘ band, featuring Andrew Woolf on reeds. A highlight was a duo of Adams and Esben Tjalve in A Timeless Place, words by Norma Winstone to Jimmy Rowles’ tune The Peacocks. Adams spied Winstone in the half-light at the back of the audience. She sounded daunted as she dedicated the performance to her. But Adams proceeded to really sing this song out to the back wall. She nailed the tune’s tricksy up-down fourths and chromatic enclosures with complete ease, conviction and style. But Adams also brought out the goose bumps of emotion. A special moment.
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