Photo Credit: Mark Ludbrook / Roman Robroek
Last year pianist/singer Wendy Kirkland released her Piano Divas album, dedicated to the many female singers and pianists who have inspired her. Now she’s taking it on the road. Leah Williams reports:
Wendy Kirkland has never known a time without music. Her dad was a keyboard player who worked the clubs playing backing for singers – and then practised classical music at home. This wide range of influences has had a clear impact on Wendy’s own musical journey. Gaining a scholarship to study piano as a child, she worked her way through the ABRSM grades and classical repertoire.
It wasn’t until her dad came home with some album transcriptions by greats such as Dave Brubeck and Bill Evans when she was around 15 that she fell for jazz. “I would use these transcripts and try to play along with their albums. I swiftly realised that they weren’t using sheet music though and were mostly improvising. I asked my piano teacher if she could help me with learning to improvise and she quite simply said ‘No, sorry, I can’t’!” This didn’t deter Wendy though, who taught herself instead and started working the club circuit with her own bands not long after.
Although she’d done some choral singing before, it wasn’t until someone requested a song with vocals at one of her gigs that the idea of singing jazz and playing piano really took hold. Ever since, Wendy’s love and admiration for the many female jazz singers and pianists who influence her only continue to grow. In addition to household names like Lianne Caroll and Diana Krall, Wendy is also a huge fan and supporter of somewhat lesser-known musicians like Dena DeRose and Carol Welsman.
The Wendy Kirkland Quartet released its first album, Piano Divas, to great acclaim last year. The idea behind the album, as the title suggests, was to pay homage to some of these musicians. “I wanted to celebrate all these incredible women who don’t often seem to get enough recognition,” says Wendy.
In order to narrow down which tunes would be included on the album, Wendy and her husband and co-arranger Pat Sprakes – who also plays guitar in the quartet – had a few criteria. They wanted a variety of arrangements and styles but also to find those distinct pieces that immediately made you think of the divas they were honouring. “There were certain pieces that were just obvious, like Shirley Horn’s Come Dance With Me, as they are real signature pieces by these great artists,” says Wendy. “Others, we chose because we just loved their originality or felt inspired by how we might arrange them to make them our own.”
Not all of the tracks are jazz standards. Two originals feature on the album as well, but these were also composed with the celebration of the great divas in mind. Bahia, which was co-written with Pat, and Samba Chica were both influenced by the latin sounds of Eliane Elias and Tania Maria respectively.
The quartet has been performing the album ever since its release last year but some welcome Arts Council funding has meant that an official tour could start on 4 August in Ambleside and will continue until the end of the year. “We’re so happy to have the opportunity to keep touring the album and taking this music to a wider audience,” enthuses Wendy. “Alongside the tracks from the album, we’ll also be playing some new music. I won’t say too much about it now but there are a few surprises in store!”
Whilst recording the album was a dream come true, it is performing in a live setting that Wendy really enjoys. “I’ve just always loved performing. You get that thrill of playing on the fly, with the spontaneous energy and interaction with both the other musicians and audience creating a fantastic buzz.” With the tour taking them across the UK, Wendy is looking forward to discovering new venues and returning to old ones. A particular highlight will be playing at The Pheasantry in London on 14 October, where the album was launched last year. (pp)