Feature/Interview

Pete Churchill (Kenny Wheeler’s ‘Piece for Low Strings’, dedicated to Chris Laurence)

Chris Laurence’s album, Kenny Wheeler: Some Gnu Ones, was recently released on the Jazz in Britain label. The realisation of the composition ‘Piece for Double Bass and Low Strings’ for the album was done by Pete Churchill. Here (*), Pete Churchill looks back on his long and inspiring co-operation with Kenny Wheeler, and explains the background to the new piece:

I first heard Kenny’s music over thirty-five years ago when I was a Jazz Composition student at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Ken came to guest with the Big Band and I was completely and utterly smitten by his music. I remember one of his original scores went missing and I was given the job of reconstructing a new complete score from the individual parts. It proved to be a masterclass in composition and the beginning of a lifelong obsession.

Kenny Wheeler and Pete Churchill working on “The Long Waiting” in 2011. Photo credit: Daniela Crevena

Since then, in all my time as the conductor of Kenny’s big band, through my involvement with his vocal music over the years and, of course, in all my composition teaching, I have continued to be deeply immersed in his sound world. So when Chris Laurence sent me a short score of a piece Kenny had written especially for him, and asked me if I could try and make sense of it with a view to getting it recorded, I jumped at the chance.

The handwritten bass part of “Piece for Low Strings”. Picture courtesy of Chris Laurence

The music was scored in Ken’s inimitable handwriting and, at first glance, it all seemed to be very detailed and clear. However, on closer inspection I discovered that whereas the first two movements were complete, the last one was unfinished – in fact it stopped quite abruptly on the last page as though Ken had been interrupted. At the bottom of that final page though, Ken appeared to have returned to the piece and sketched out some rough ideas for a final section. The big question was whether there might be enough material here from which to fashion an ending.

My first task, however, was to make a fair handwritten copy of what was complete on the original score. Ken’s handwriting is not unclear but it is a composer’s hand with all the usual abbreviations and shortcuts and you can feel how impatient he was to get his ideas onto the page. Also, one of the first problems to solve was that there was no indication of the instrumentation (other than Chris’s part of course). However, it became apparent (after a few false starts) from the register and character of the ensemble parts, that Ken had written for a low string section… one violin, two violas and two cellos. I persevered and once the first two sections were laid out in full score it all made perfect sense – a new Kenny Wheeler composition was unfolding before my eyes and it was very, very exciting.

It was now time to approach the last section. I could see that, where the music tailed off, Ken had lightly sketched an unfinished melody for the vibes – with some five-part string chords voiced underneath. The rest of this final page was filled with a sketch of a new chord progression and this included a two-part vibes motif over the top – and then there were also a couple of four-bar sample Bass-figures underneath (for Chris!) that were clearly meant to be extended throughout the whole progression. I had found the seeds of the last movement.

Looking at one of Ken’s scores in detail is a bit like taking the back off a watch

Over the years I have found that the clarity of Kenny’s musical language is such that, when you do get the chance to study it, you end up learning so much more than you bargained for. If you pay attention it will teach you about proportion, development, pacing and how to strike the right balance between the written and the improvised sections. Looking at one of Ken’s scores in detail is a bit like taking the back off a watch.

As with other Jazz composers, many of Ken’s large scale works started out as lead-sheets so it is often possible to follow the journey of a piece from the original sketch (the lead-sheet) through a quintet version perhaps and on to the large-scale compositions we all know. His original ideas always seem to develop very organically and, unlike other composers perhaps, his process is there for us all to see.

Bearing all this in mind and armed with everything Ken’s music has taught me over the years, I simply allowed his sketches to develop the way they seemed to want to go. Bit by bit, the last section of this wonderful piece emerged before my eyes. At times the process was almost mystical. The final melody seemed somehow to complete itself and lead very naturally towards a reprise of his opening material. I simply had to get myself out of the way and allow the material to do what it needed to do – to let the music complete itself.

Chris Laurence at the recording session at The Music Den studio

This wonderful piece was Kenny Wheeler’s gift to Chris Laurence – a testament to their life-long friendship and their musical relationship and I think you can hear this resonating through every single note that Ken has written for him to play.

Having been professionally copied and formatted by the wonderful Pete Hurt, Piece for Double Bass and Low Strings has now been recorded beautifully and becomes an exciting new addition to Kenny Wheeler’s catalogue of string repertoire.

What an immense privilege it has been to be part of the team that has helped to bring it all to life.

(*) This feature by Pete Churchill was written to accompany the release, and appears in shortened form as a liner note. With sincerest thanks to John Thurlow of Jazz in Britain giving permission, indeed for being so supportive of LJN reproducing the article here.

LINKS: Album Review of Kenny Wheeler – Some Gnu Ones by Mike Collins

Buy Some Gnu Ones from the Jazz in Britain website

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