Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Wendy Kirkland Quartet

Wendy Kirkland Quartet, ‘Piano Divas’, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 29/04/18

Photography: Photograph by David Hobbs.

by Ian Mann

May 01, 2018


"A polished and enjoyable performance. Well worth catching this quartet if you get the chance." Guest contributor David Hobbs enjoys the music of pianist/vocalist Wendy Kirkland and her quartet.

Black MountainJazz, The Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 29 April, 2018:

‘Piano Divas’ featuring The Wendy Kirkland Quartet.

The theme of this evening’s set was female singer/pianists, reflecting the degree to which Wendy Kirkland, formerly solely a pianist, was inspired to combine singing and piano playing after being exposed to such performers as Diana Krall, Nina Simone, Eliane Elias and Carol Welsman.
This was a very professional set, and the fact that the quartet had been touring to promote its first album came across clearly in their tight and polished delivery throughout the evening.

The quartet (interestingly, all of whose members were involved in running jazz clubs in the north of England) comprised musicians who were clearly competent and experienced in the field. On guitar was Pat Sprakes (Kirkland’s husband), who played a very strong role in the quartet, providing a rhythmically sound and melodically sound foundation. His tone was excellent and varied and he was able to produce a range of subtle variations in sound, suggesting great jazz guitarists of the past (For guitar aficionados, he utilised a very nice custom made, thin line, semi-acoustic by English luthier Colin Keefe, coupled with a Mambo wedge combo).

On double bass was Paul Jeffries, who provided a solid and driving rhythm, with styles very appropriate to the selection of tunes. His time feel was excellent and his tone never harsh (through his Acoustic Image combo and Gage Realist pickup setup). Jeffries easily switched between styles and kept a keen eye on the quartet’s members, keeping the whole evening tightly controlled.

On drums (a lovely old Gretsch jazz, 18”bass drum, kit), mainly utilising brushes but providing a wide range of sounds, was Steve Smith, who was never too showy but provided just what was required for the numbers selected. Smith is a drummer who really listens and would fit easily and tastefully into many jazz combos. I enjoyed his laid back, but authoritative, style very much.

Kirkland has a relaxed and pleasant jazz vocal style, reminiscent to an extent of Diana Krall but maintaining her own stamp all the while. Her keyboard playing was appropriate to the styles of the songs and relevant throughout, mainly using a standard piano sound on her Korg keyboard but, on one song, using an electric piano sound to good effect.

The set kicked off with a take on Shirley Horn’s version of the Cahn / Van Heusen tune ‘Come Dance With Me’. This featured a great swinging bass and a lovely, bluesy, guitar solo reminiscent of Herb Ellis, with a few cheeky quotes thrown in, and a fine piano solo from Kirkland.

Next was a version of Hank Williams’ ‘Hey, good looking’, inspired by the Canadian Carol
Welsman’s approach. The first ‘head’, played with ‘stops’, worked well and was followed by some laid back solos from Sprakes and Kirkland. The feel as the tune progressed was sparse and bluesy, featuring some nice piano and guitar call and response passages. The vamp at the end of the tune concluded suddenly, and to good effect, on a suspended chord.

The first set continued with an interesting variety of tunes:

Berlin’s ‘Cheek To Cheek’, arranged by Sprakes in a quite complex samba style but with a swung B section, the outro featuring some fine and mellow, thump toned, guitar work from Sprakes.

‘Its Not Unusual’ - normally associated with Tom Jones but written by Les Reed and Gordon Mills. This arrangement, by Sprakes and Kirkland, was delivered in a relaxed bossa style with the intro section covered by Sprakes. This was a very mellow and pleasant arrangement with some excellent bossa rhythms provided by Smith. The tune modulated upwards for the second head and utilised some interesting harmonic substitutions under the ‘it happens every day ...’ parts. A quite satisfying arrangement overall, which the audience clearly appreciated.

The American jazz pianist Dave Frishberg’s ‘I’m Hip’, famously covered by Blossom Dearie. This song, which Kirkland explained was written about jazz fans who are less cool than they think, featured a few altered lyrics for the purpose of ensuring topicality; I think I heard macrobiotics mentioned in the vocal. This number worked well, commencing with an effective ‘two’ feel and finishing with a well executed piano and voice coda.

Kenny Rankin’s ‘Haven’t We Met?’, inspired by Mel Torme’s take on this song, performed with a jazz waltz (actually 6/8) feel. Sprake’s guitar solo was very impressive and his use of octaves conjured up a Wes Montgomery feel. The beginning of this arrangement, based around Van Heusen’s ‘Here’s That Rainy Day’ was apt and evocative.

Jobim’s ‘Chega de Saudade’ (‘No More Blues’), presented in a samba style and based on a transcription of Eliane Elias’s live performance. This was probably my favourite song of the set, the first section performed as a voice and guitar duo, followed by an open feeling piano, bass and drum section, eventually picking up a nice samba rhythm backing to a piano solo with a strong bass foundation. Jeffries’ bass tone was superb here. A drum solo, against a repeated piano motif, led to a well rehearsed and sudden surprise ending to the first set.

The second set, followed the general theme of the first but remained varied and interesting, and was equally well received by the audience. In brief, the set included:

Frank Loesser’s ‘On a slow boat to China’, based on Carol Welsman’s performance, featuring a laid back swing feel and complemented by an excellent scat/piano intro from Kirkland.

A Spakes/Kirkland original, ‘Bahia’, named after the Brazilian resort, featuring some delightfully rich piano harmonies in the intro and some fine bossa rhythmic playing from Sprakes.

Bernstein’s ‘Some Other Time’, evoking the performance of this song by Diana Krall and the fine jazz guitarist Mark Whitfield. Here the arpeggiated piano and vocal intro with a simple guitar backing worked well and was complemented by Sprakes’ use of a bowed string effect by employing his volume pedal, and by a simple but effective bass and brushed snare backing.

Peter Nero’s ‘Sunday in New York’, in an arrangement by Kirkland. Here the head, performed beautifully by Kirkland, was followed by a blue toned solo from Sprakes, with a tone reminiscent of some of the work of Lee Ritenour and Russell Malone: very classy. Kirkland followed with a scat singing section with well executed doubling of the melodic lines on piano. This number featured some stylish drumming breaks from Smith.

Walter Donaldson’s and Gus Kahn’s ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’. Here, rather than mimicking the well worn Nina Simone version, the quartet presented the song in the style of Al Jarreau, though Kirkland explained that she did not intend to try to replicate Jarreau’s voice! Kirkland switched here to a very apt electric piano sound. The jazz funk backing and Sprakes’ Wes Montgomery styled octave work, coupled with some tasteful and spacey piano soloing, made this number work very well. Unexpectedly, this unconventional approach to the song concluded with a return to the usual coda from Simone’s classic recording.

Brooks Bowman’s ‘East Of The Sun And West Of The Moon’, inspired by Diana Krall’s performance, which was again very smooth and well received.

Herb Ellis’s ‘Detour Ahead’, styled on the arrangement by Nina de Rose. This was a sound performance featuring lots of off beat emphases, some very effective and fluid guitar playing and a brilliant, spacey, final section with bassist and drummer acquitting themselves well.

Barry Manilow’s ‘Meet Me At Midnight’, which follows the chordal structure of Sonny Rollins’ ‘Doxy’. The evening concluded with this song, which commenced with a strong vocal over a bass and drum backing. The straight ahead jazz/blues feel of this number worked well and the tune featured some interesting piano work from Kirkland over a convincing Duke Ellington /Ray Brown type backing from the rhythm section.

Overall, this was a polished and enjoyable performance, and was well received by the audience. Kirkland is a capable and engaging performer and maintains a good rapport with her audience. The band demonstrated that they are very competent and experienced. For me, the only thing lacking at times was a sense of danger; the best jazz performances, in my view, take chances and push the boundaries (often with the result that things fall over a little). I would have liked to see the quartet take a few more risks, but that’s just me - the audience was very pleased with the performance and I heard murmurings of “let’s have more of this sort of thing”. Well worth catching this quartet if you get the chance.


blog comments powered by Disqus