|London Vocal Project
“A whole decade! That’s every Monday night (give or take a few weeks off every summer) for ten years,” reflects PETE CHURCHILL, as he looks forward to marking a special anniversary. On Sunday 8 July, the London Vocal Project will be celebrating its tenth anniversary with a concert at Kings Place. Pete thinks about what makes their ‘vocal blend’ really work, looks forward to the night, and remembers….
It all began with a small group of singers who graduated from the Guildhall and decided they wanted to stay together. I remember getting the phone call from Mishka Adams asking if I’d direct them and the rest… as they say…
We decided, from the start, to become a ‘project choir’ – dedicated to new writing wherever possible – but always with a core repertoire of ‘groove’ material. It was with this repertoire, learned by ear, that we began to develop a sound – and we realized fairly early on the importance of meeting every week – whether or not there was a gig on the horizon. You get better by just singing together a lot!
This raises the question of how we have kept going. LVP is an interesting community of people and like any community, the members come and go. There are some ‘lifers’ – founder-members who have been there from the start. There are some who return after taking a season or two out (we try to keep their seat warm!) and then there are some who come just for a while before moving on.
Having been embedded within LVP for ten years it is becoming clearer to me that communities, if they are to survive, need to be adaptable – not to mention generous, empathetic and above all, tolerant. Sometimes rehearsals are not enough to bind an ensemble together. To this end we have always tried to organize a yearly ‘retreat’ – a time where we can simply co-exist for a week without the pressure of an imminent gig. It is on these occasions of singing, eating and drinking together that we are reminded of the importance of making a connection outside the music.
I think vocal blend is often more of a social issue than a musical one. It involves hearing – and listening to – more than yourself. What became apparent to me after our first retreat – a week in the South of France in the summer of 2008 singing Kenny Wheeler’s music – was that we began to sing better just because we liked each other more.
This first project, singing Kenny Wheeler’s Mirrors Suite, resulted in a gig at the Vortex with Norma Winstone – and this was followed shortly afterward by a concert at the Royal Festival Hall with John Dankworth and Cleo Laine where we sang John’s rarely heard vocal arrangements. I remember the challenge of learning both Ken and John’s music and how it really began to raise our game.
The following project, however, was a defining moment for us as we took on the glorious music from Bobby McFerrin’s VOCAbuLarieS album. It was for this concert at the Barbican with Bobby that we decided to memorise everything. It was, initially, a daunting task (to say the least) but we found that by committing this music to memory it changed our rehearsal process completely. People memorise in different ways and at different speeds. For some it comes easily but is fleeting (it’s there for the gig then it’s gone!) whilst for others, although it is a laborious task, once it is there it’ll be there forever. The act of memorizing as a group therefore requires much-needed patience and generosity from all those involved if we are all to arrive together. Despite these variables, however, we do get things memorised (I’m always the last!) and have found the pay-off to be enormous. For a start, the energy within the choir changes dramatically – with more eye-contact, more interaction, greater ‘ownership’ of the material and subsequently a greater connection with our audience.
On reflection, it seems that every intense project of ours seems to be followed by a ‘dip’ in energy – and it was in the aftermath of the Bobby McFerrin project that I noticed it for the first time. People naturally wondered how we could possibly follow that! This is often the time when the personnel fluctuates and, if we’re not careful the choir can lose focus. But we carry on meeting every Monday – the ‘lifers’ continue to turn up – we regroup a little and then dream up the next project for those who need some incentive!
For us the next big project was to record Ken Wheeler’s Mirrors’ suite. It was a couple of years in planning – beginning with a great gig at the London Jazz Festival with Ken and Norma and a subsequent album on Edition records. I really felt with this project that we were fulfilling our mission statement. This was music that would never have been heard if we hadn’t taken it on. If great music like this is to survive it needs to be recorded – as a document – but, equally importantly, it has to be kept alive within the repertoire of a performing ensemble – and, for ‘Mirrors’, we were that ensemble.
Now to the present. Some people may be aware that the latest important piece of writing of which LVP have become the curators, is the hugely significant vocalese reworking by Jon Hendricks of the Miles Davis/Gil Evans classic, MILES AHEAD. It has been five years in preparation – overlapping considerably with other projects – and it culminated last year in a Quincy Jones-funded New York premiere in front of Jon Hendricks and most of the NYC Jazz-singing community – and it was followed shortly afterwards by a wonderful concert here in London at Kings Place. We are still reeling (and regrouping) from that experience but we have managed to record it all and are now planning to seek out and record suitable soloists for the Miles Davis parts and then find a label to release it.
Choosing the right repertoire for our concert at Kings Place this Sunday has been quite a challenge. We are striving to reflect a decade of activity. There was much we had to leave out. We have a vast repertoire of music from our huge educational projects at the Royal Albert Hall performing with thousands of children! However, it promises to be an adventurous programme drawn not only from the epic music mentioned above but also from a myriad of smaller projects along the way – British jazz composers (Nikki Iles, Tim Whitehead…) the music of Abdullah Ibrahim and more.
We are delivering an afternoon workshop at 2:00pm for those who want to sing with us and the concert begins at 7:30pm. Please, please join us – all details are here…