by Ian Mann
May 31, 2017
“Piano Divas” has obviously been a labour of love for Kirkland and the lucid warmth of her singing is complemented by her highly accomplished piano playing.
Wendy Kirkland Quartet
Pianist, organist and vocalist Wendy Kirkland is one of the great unsung heroines of British Jazz. In her role as a promoter she runs the successful Chesterfield and Peak Jazz Clubs and as a musician frequently leads the house band backing such visiting musicians as saxophonists Karen Sharp, Alan Barnes and Tony Kofi, guitarists Jim Mullen and Phil Robson and vibraphonist Roger Beaujolais. Indeed Barnes, Mullen and Beaujolais all contribute positive testimonials to the “Piano Divas” album liner notes.
Kirkland performs regularly in the North and East Midlands and the North of England with a variety of different musicians and in a wide range of jazz contexts. As a band leader her current projects include the Organik Trio, in which she plays Hammond, a group that is sometimes expanded to a four piece with the addition of a guest saxophonist to become the quartet Organik Fource.
In 2015 Kirkland had the idea for the “Piano Divas” project, a show honouring the great female pianist/vocalists of jazz including Diana Krall, Eliane Elias, Blossom Dearie, Nina Simone, Shirley Horn and lesser known figures such as Dena Derose, Carol Welsman and Tania Maria. “Piano Divas” has toured widely in Kirkland’s North and Midlands catchment area and has proved to be a highly popular attraction. A successful crowdfunding campaign helped to finance the recording of the “Piano Divas” album, Kirkland’s first recording since 2005’s “From The Top”.
The “Piano Divas” album includes ten songs, predominately jazz standards, that are associated with other artists plus two Brazilian flavoured originals in the style of Eliane Elias, the first of these
co-written by Kirkland and her husband and musical partner, guitarist Pat Sprakes. The quartet that appears on the album includes Kirkland, Sprakes, bassist Paul Jefferies and drummer Stevie Smith. One piece features a vocal duet between Kirkland and big band singer Gary Grace.
Interestingly Kirkland does not try to emulate the vocal styles of the women who inspired her. The album features her own arrangements and her voice is also very much her own. The album was documented over the course of two days and is essentially a “live in the studio” recording with Kirkland singing and playing piano simultaneously, in keeping with the ethos of the project. Editing was kept to a minimum and Kirkland is keen to emphasise that devices such as Autotune and Melodyne were not used at any time.
The album commences with the Jimmy Van Heusen / Sammy Cahn song “Come Dance with Me”, a composition associated with Shirley Horn. The swinging rendition highlights Kirkland’s pianistic skills as well as her vocal navigation of a clever and often tricky lyric. Meanwhile bassist Jefferies and drummer Smith keep the grooves tight and tasty.
Co-written by Kirkland and Sprakes “Bahia” is a breezy celebration of a holiday spent in Brazil. A relaxed group performance combines a richly evocative lyric with a charming Kirkland vocal.
Frank Loesser’s “Slow Boat To China” marks a return to more familiar musical waters with Sprakes and Kirkland trading instrumental solos mid tune. There’s also a scat vocal episode from Kirkland on another swinging quartet performance.
The Bernstein/Comden/Green song “Some Other Time” is more reflective in tone and finds Kirkland musing wistfully on matters of life, love and the passage of time. There’s a lyrical piano solo from Kirkland and Sprake’s guitar meanders coolly and elegantly in and out of the piece. A delightfully understated performance from the rhythm team includes some sensitive and sympathetic brushwork from Smith.
A playful take on Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin’” includes fluent instrumental solos from Sprakes and Kirkland and adds a touch of the blues to the group sound.
The Reed/Mills song “It’s Not Unusual”, best known as a huge hit for Tom Jone,s is given a slowed down, Latin-esque treatment with a seductive Kirkland vocal.
A solo performance of Ben Sidran’s bluesy “Be Nice” finds Kirkland dispensing some sage advice via a clever, streetwise lyric - “be nice to the people on the way up, you’re going to meet them on the way back down”.
Kirkland’s own “Samba Chica” features her wordless vocals and piano soloing on another vivacious Brazilian styled piece. Sprakes weighs in with a pithy, fluent guitar solo as Smith’s busily brushed drums consistently propel the song forward.
Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” is performed as a vocal duet with Gary Grace with the singers adding their own lyrics, a kind of musical conversation on the vicissitudes of the musical life. The always swinging Jefferies and Smith keep pushing the tune forward and there’s a melodic solo cameo from the bassist. Meanwhile Kirkland and Grace manage to squeeze quotes from “Smile”, “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” and “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” into the equation.
Irving Berlin’s “Cheek To Cheek” is given an imaginative arrangement and a vivacious performance with sparkling instrumental solos from Kirkland and Sprakes.
The Donaldson/Kahn song, “My Baby Just Cares For Me”, a song indelibly associated with Nina Simone, is given a relaxed, slowed down arrangement and an updated lyric. Kirkland, perhaps wisely, makes no attempt to mimic Simone’s style and both she and Sprakes offer tasteful instrumental solos.
The album concludes with the Sussman/Manilow song “Meet At Midnight”, a languidly swinging, blues inflected performance featuring a seductive Kirkland vocal.
I have to admit that the music on this album is a little outside my usual listening zone, it’s all a little too close to mainstream entertainment for my personal tastes. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate the quality of the performances. “Piano Divas” has obviously been a labour of love for Kirkland and the lucid warmth of her singing is complemented by her highly accomplished piano playing. Sprakes makes a number of significant contributions and the rhythm team of Jefferies and Smith is excellent throughout, always swinging and always on the money. This is an admirably tight and cohesive quartet.
It’s easy to see why “Piano Divas” has been such a popular touring show in Kirkland’s heartlands. This is music capable of appealing to audiences who might not necessarily consider themselves to be jazz fans. With this project and with her tireless promotional work Wendy Kirkland is doing more than her share of getting jazz out there to the people. I have every admiration for her efforts.
For details of forthcoming public performances by Wendy Kirkland please visit http://www.wendykirkland.com
From Wendy Kirkland via Facebook;
A lovely review from Ian Mann on his JazzMann page. Ian is one of the most highly respected reviewers online and I was honoured by his praise.blog comments powered by Disqus