REPORT: London Vocal Project – Jon Hendricks’ Miles Ahead – World Premiere in New York

London Vocal Project at the premiere
with Pete Churchill and Jon Hendricks (front row, 5th and 5th from left)

London Vocal Project – Jon Hendricks’ Miles Ahead  – 
(St Peter’s Church, New York, 17th February 2017. Report by Tessa Souter)

The world premiere of the seminal Gil Evans-Miles Davis album Miles Ahead, lyricized by Jon Hendricks, St. Peter’s Church in New York on Friday, was a spectacular success.

Practically every singer in New York was in attendance – including (sharing a pew in the front row) Annie Ross, Sheila Jordan and the man himself, Jon Hendricks. Executive Producer, Quincy Jones, who paid for the 23-strong choir (plus bassist Dave Whitford and drummer Steve Brown) to fly in from London, was video-ed on the wall, sending his congratulations and love. The performances were amazing. And the audience was spellbound, including 95-year-old Jon Hendricks, who could barely contain his excitement – mouthing the words, conducting along and occasionally jumping up from his seat throughout the concert.

But, despite all appearances to the contrary, pulling it off was far from effortless. Almost 50 years in the making, from concept to final execution, the vocal version of Miles Ahead was finally midwifed into existence by LVP choir director, Pete Churchill, who first heard about it when he met Jon Hendricks at a vocal workshop in London in 2010. “He said he’d been working on this Miles Ahead project since the 60s and I said, ‘Well, we’ll do it!’ Because that’s what the London Vocal Project’s mission is about. To champion new music. In other words, if we didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done!”

And you can see why. It wasn’t simply a question of learning supremely difficult music, reducing all the orchestra parts and rescoring them up for 11-part vocal harmonies (“We sang every note that Gil wrote; that was Jon’s stipulation,” says Churchill), it had to be actually finished. “About a year after we agreed to do it, we met in Paris to look at feasibility. Jon had all his lyrics and he’d brought all his scores. And that’s when I found out how much there was still yet to do because he’d done all the Miles solos but many of the orchestrations hadn’t been lyricized.”

A week before a 2014 performance at Ronnie Scott’s of three movements – “The Duke”, “The Maids of Cadiz” and “My Ship” – Churchill flew to New York to start filling in the lyrics that were needed for the orchestrations. “I sat at the piano and played the score – it’s easier to rewind me than a recording! – saying to Jon: ‘What’s Miles saying at this point. And what should the trombones be saying?’ It was a kind of dialogue between orchestra and soloists. Sometimes protagonist, sometimes Greek chorus. It was very interesting what his concept was. Then I was sending them back to the LVP to write on the score and rehearse as he was writing them.”

“Jon and I had a schedule every day. I’d knock on his door at about 11am and we’d do a couple of hours and have lunch and then do another couple of hours. Then I’d be spending the rest of the time scoring it up and putting the voices in on the score. It worked really well,” says Churchill. “Sometimes he’d have a block. I had various strategies, including suggesting a really bad lyric knowing he’d then come up with something amazing. Sometimes he’d come out with complete lyrics. He’d been thinking about it for years, so he was pretty fertile.”

Next job was rehearsing it. Hendricks had asked the choir to listen to the album “first thing each morning and last thing each night.” Which they did – and more. “Every summer for the eight or nine years we’ve been together we go on a retreat, and we’d spend a week working on a couple of movements of Miles Ahead. Because it’s intense, we had to devise new ways of rehearsing. One of our basses is an IT genius and he adapted a program where we could loop bits of Miles off the album and slow it down to practice, with the score on the screen in front of us.” Miraculously, the choir performs entirely from memory – and in the original key.

It was a huge responsibility. “I was worried about how long it was going to take,” says Churchill. “I was very sad when Judith, who took care of and traveled with Jon everywhere, passed away. That’s when I realized he couldn’t come to London and that if he was going to hear this we were going to have to come to him. So I wrote to Quincy to ask for help and he came through, along with Wendy Oxenhorn of the Jazz Foundation of America.”

“I felt it all came together,” says Churchill, of the world premiere, in classic British understatement. It was actually a triumph in every possible way. The soloists Anita Wardell, Michele Hendricks, Kevin Fitzgerald Burke and Jessica Radcliffe were outstanding, and the choir – from bass to impossibly high soprano – was one incredible voice. After the final standing ovation, vocalist Michele Hendricks, took the microphone and said: “Tonight Pete Churchill made a dream of my father’s come true! It’s not every day you get to see someone’s dream come true.” For those of us that were lucky enough to be there last Friday, that was the icing on the cake.

Tessa Souter is a New York based vocalist. She is appearing at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola on March 7 – Sets at 7:30 and 9:30pm.

The London premiere will of the Hendricks / LVP Miles Ahead be at Kings Place Hall One on Sunday May 21st. DETAILS/BOOKINGS.

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