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Wendy Kirkland Sextet

Latin Lowdown Live

by Ian Mann

March 23, 2022


This album may have been recorded on a November night in Chesterfield but it transports the listener to Rio de Janeiro and the Copacabana.

Wendy Kirkland Sextet

“Latin Lowdown Live”

(Self Released)

Wendy Kirkland – piano, voice, Pat Sprakes – guitar, Roger Beaujolais – vibraphone,
Wayne Matthews – bass guitar, Steve Wyndham – drum kit, Jon Richmond – Latin percussion

Chesterfield based pianist, vocalist and songwriter Wendy Kirkland has featured regularly on the Jazzmann web pages in recent years. A long time stalwart of the jazz scene in the Midlands and the North both as a performer and as a promoter (Kirkland and husband Pat Sprakes run Chesterfield Jazz Club) she is now a musician with a national reputation, playing regularly at London venues such as Ronnie Scott’s and at jazz clubs and festivals all over the country.

Kirkland’s overdue, but well deserved, success came with the release of her 2017 album “Piano Divas” album, a recording 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.  My review of that album can be found here;

The “Piano Divas” album enjoyed a highly positive reception from the critics and the hard working Kirkland also toured the project widely, the quality of the music and the warmth of her personality striking a chord with audiences as she continued to add to her burgeoning fan base.

2019 saw the release of “The Music’s On Me”, an album which built upon the success of “Piano Divas”, but which also placed a greater emphasis on the original songwriting of Kirkland and Sprakes. Once again the album was very well received and Kirkland again toured in support of the project, including a performance at the inaugural event of the recently established Kidderminster Jazz Club in October 2019. This offered me the opportunity of seeing her performing live for the first time, an experience that I very much enjoyed. My review of the Kidderminster show, which also takes a look at “The Music’s On Me” album can be found here;

Inevitably the Covid pandemic put a stop to Kirkland’s touring and to her promotional activities. Like many other musicians Kirkland and Sprakes turned to the livestream as an outlet for their creativity. In March 2020 they began their “Latin Lockdown” online series, performing a different song almost every day, their selection reflecting their love of Brazilian and Afro-Cuban music. In total Kirkland and Sprakes performed a total of eighty six different songs, with Sprakes moving between guitar and double bass. Kirkland played piano and sang, and I seem to recall one performance that featured her playing melodica.

The Latin Lockdown series proved to be enormously popular and following the eventual easing of Covid restrictions Kirkland was eventually able to take the project out on the road, as “Latin Lowdown”, as part of an Arts Council supported tour during the latter part of 2021.

This live recording was captured at Kirkland’s home venue of Chesterfield Jazz Club on November 28th 2021 and features a sextet containing the talents of guest vibraphonist Roger Beaujolais, a bandleader in his own right. The album was recorded, mixed and mastered by engineer Mark Viveash of the South Wales based 47Studios, with whom Kirkland had worked at the 2021 Wall2Wall Virtual Jazz Festival in Abergavenny. As a regular attender of jazz events in Abergavenny and having covered Kirkland’s Wall2Wall online performance, filmed and recorded by Viveash, this gives the album an extra resonance for me. It’s good to see Viveash receiving recognition for his work, much like Kirkland herself.

As Kirkland explains whittling down eighty six songs to just the ten that feature on this recording was no easy task. The final selection includes pieces from Antonio Carlos Jobim, Hilton Ruiz, Ivan Lins and George Benson, among others, plus original compositions from both Beaujolais and Sprakes.

The album commences with Beaujolais’ instrumental composition “Joe Beam” (see what he just did there), a sunny Brazilian flavoured piece that places its composers virtuoso vibes playing to the fore, supported by the propulsive grooves of electric bass, kit drums and Latin percussion. Kirkland then takes over at the piano. It should be remembered that she is a superb instrumentalist, who also performs on Hammond organ in other musical contexts. Kirkland’s trio, featuring Sprakes, regularly functions as the ‘house band’ at Chesterfield Jazz Club, accompanying visiting instrumental soloists and vocalists.

The first vocal item is “His Smile”, written by Till Bronner and Robin Meloy Goldsby, another good natured Brazilian flavoured item that maintains the sunny mood. Kirkland sings the lyrics and shares the instrumental soloing with Beaujolais’ vibes.

Sprakes’ original “Fairway Blues” is another instrumental composition and brings his guitar to the fore as he shares the spotlight with Beaujolais’ vibes. The rhythm section keep things ticking along nicely and there’s something of a Grant Green feel about Sprakes’ extended guitar solo.

Joao Donata’s “Sambolero” features Kirkland singing convincingly in Portuguese plus lithe instrumental solos from Sprakes on guitar and Beaujolais at the vibes.

“Blues for Cos”,  was written by the American pianist Hilton Ruiz (1952-2006), who was born in New Orleans but was of Puerto Rican origins. Here the emphasis is more obviously on Afro-Cuban rhythms and the performance features solos from Kirkland on piano, who also adds some wordless vocalising,  and Beaujolais on vibes. Drummer Wyndham and percussionist Richmond are also featured in the latter stages of this essentially instrumental piece. It’s an energetic performance from the sextet, something reflected by the excited audience reaction at the close.

There’s a return to Brazil for “Samba do Soho”, written by Paulo Jobim, son of Antonio Carlos.
Kirkland delivers the lyrics in English and also solos at the piano. Beaujolais is featured on vibes, Sprakes on guitar and Matthews on Jaco Pastorius inspired electric bass.

The policy of alternating instrumental and vocal pieces continues with the sextet’s version of George Benson’s “El Mar”. This is introduced by the beguiling combination of Sprakes’ ‘Spanish’ style guitar and the shimmer of Richmond’s percussion. Vibes, piano,  bass and drums are added as the ensemble combine effectively on this highly melodic composition, Benson’s answer to Chick Corea’s celebrated Iberian inspired pieces “Spain” and “La Fiesta”. It’s a fine group performance all round, with Sprakes and Beaujolais the featured soloists.

Ivan Lins’ “Who Loves You” is a languid Brazilian love song that features Kirkland’s warm delivery of the English lyric and a lyrical vibraphone solo from Beaujolais.

Sprakes’  second original composition is the instrumental “Suburban Castaway”, an attractive and melodic piece that provides the framework for fluent solos from Matthews on electric bass and the composer on guitar.  Aided by Kirkland the rhythm team of Matthews, Wyndham and Richmond keep things bubbling infectiously throughout.

The album concludes with the instrumental “Papa Gato”, written by Charlie Otwell. Again the rhythm team lay down a highly propulsive groove, which helps to fuel flamboyant solos from Beaujolais on vibes and Kirkland on piano. Wyndham and Richmond, supported by Matthews, are featured in a drum / percussion set piece as the sextet close the proceedings on a high note, to the obvious delight of the Chesterfield audience.

The stated purpose of the “Latin Lockdown” project was to “transport people to another place with the music - somewhere sunny, fun and Covid 19 free!”. The online edition of the project certainly succeeded in this aim, immediately resonating with audiences as Wendy and Pat’s regular duo livescreen performances generated nearly a million views in total.

The live “Latin Lowdown” version, featuring a full six piece touring band, has also succeeded brilliantly. This album may have been recorded on a November night in Chesterfield but it transports the listener to Rio de Janeiro and the Copacabana.

Ably led by Kirkland the sextet is a well drilled unit whose ensemble playing is excellent throughout. Kirkland sings with warmth and feeling and her vocals are well enunciated. Her piano playing is at the heart of the music, whether soloing or comping as part of a rhythm team featuring Matthews’ supple electric bass grooves, Richmond’s colourful, richly detailed percussion and Wyndham’s immaculate time keeping behind the kit. Sprakes shines as both guitarist and composer and Beaujolais confirms his position as one of the most spectacular soloists in British jazz, as well as weighing in with a composer credit.

Mark Viveash also deserves credit for capturing the whole experience so successfully.


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