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Wendy Kirkland Sextet

Wendy Kirkland Sextet, The Olde House, Chesterfield, livestreamed by Brecon Jazz Club, 05/06/2021.

by Ian Mann

June 09, 2021


Ian Mann enjoys this 'hybrid' collaboration between Chesterfield Jazz Club and Brecon Jazz Club, featuring the Latin themed music of pianist / vocalist Wendy Kirkland and her sextet.

Wendy Kirkland Sextet, The Olde House, Chesterfield, livestreamed by Brecon Jazz Club, 05/06/2021

Wendy Kirkland – piano, vocals, shaker, Pat Sprakes – guitar, Mike Green – electric bass, Steve Wyndham – drum kit, Jon Richmond – Latin percussion
with special guest Roger Beaujolais – vibraphone

The Covid 19 crisis has helped to foster a real sense of community among the jazz fraternity. Times have been hard for musicians, promoters and venues alike, and also for fans starved of live music, there’s been a real sense that we genuinely are “all in this together”.

Always highly adaptable, jazz musicians were quick to embrace the concept of the live stream, while club and festival organisers have also become attuned to the idea of ‘virtual’ performances, staging regular online shows and indeed entire digital festivals.

Further innovations have seen provincial jazz clubs banding together to present performances, thus broadening what in more normal times would have been just the physical audience, in the room on the night.

Trevor Bannister, a regular guest contributor to the Jazzmann has reviewed a series of shows recorded at The Boileroom venue by Guildford Jazz and syndicated to a number of other jazz clubs, initially in the South of England but now covering other parts of the country. These include Trevor’s own local club, Jazz in Reading, and also Berkshamsted Jazz, Chichester Jazz, Fleet Jazz, Frinton Jazz, Southwold Jazz and Scarborough Jazz.

Tonight’s performance represented the first collaboration between Brecon Jazz Club and Chesterfield Jazz Club. Brecon Jazz Club has already presented a number of live performances recorded at its regular venue The Muse Arts Centre and also delivered an excellent ‘virtual’ Brecon Jazz Festival back in August 2020.

Most of the performances from The Muse have featured acts based in Wales or the South West of England. For this latest event organisers Lynne Gornall and Roger Cannon decided to ‘look North’ and made contact with pianist and vocalist Wendy Kirkland, an artist that in more normal times they would have invited to The Muse.

In addition to her role as an increasingly successful professional musician Kirkland and her husband, guitarist Pat Sprakes, also run Chesterfield Jazz Club, making a collaboration between the two clubs a very attractive and practical proposition. It also transpired that both Kirkland and guest vibraphonist Roger Beaujolais had been on Brecon Jazz Club’s ‘wish list’ prior to lockdown, ensuring that this was a perfect arrangement given the current circumstances.

It was agreed that Kirkland and her sextet would perform at Chesterfield Jazz Club’s regular venue The Olde House, with online ticket sales being administered by Brecon Jazz Club.

It was an arrangement that seemed to work particularly well, particularly as the recent easing of Covid restrictions meant that a small live audience was in attendance at The Olde House and it has to be said that their presence added hugely to the atmosphere of the event. Just to hear genuine audience applause, even remotely, for the first time in over a year certainly enhanced my personal enjoyment of the event.

A smaller group also watched the event on a large screen at The Muse, this hopefully presaging the return of real live performances in Brecon before too long.

Kirkland is one of those enterprising musicians who quickly embraced the livestream phenomenon, creating a regular series of online events under the banner ‘Latin Lockdowns’. This featured a daily performance from their home by Kirkland and Sprakes of one of their favourite Brazilian and Latin tunes.  Featuring their own arrangements these daily shows quickly accrued a large and dedicated following, with the couple performing a total of eighty six songs over the course of several months.  Their success resulted in an Arts Council grant for a Latin Lockdown tour in 2021, initially consisting of online performances but with a series of real live tour dates scheduled to take place later in the year.

The positive reaction to the Latin Lockdowns project was founded on the success of Kirkland’s recent albums, 2017’s “Piano Divas” and the 2019 release “The Music’s On Me”.

“Piano Divas” paid tribute to fellow female pianist/vocalists such as Diana Krall, Eliane Elias, Blossom Dearie, Nina Simone, Dena DeRose and more, while the 2019 album placed a greater emphasis on original material written by Kirkland and Sprakes. Both albums attracted compelling degrees of critical acclaim and helped to earn Kirkland a national reputation, resulting in gigs at such famous London jazz venues as the Pizza Express Jazz Club and Ronnie Scott’s. Indeed Kirkland and Sprakes had played a sold out show in the upstairs bar at the recently re-opened Ronnie’s only a few days before tonight’s event.

Kirkland is also an accomplished jazz organist and leads the Hammond driven Organik Trio, another group that incorporates Sprakes and one that is sometimes expanded, with the addition of a guest saxophonist, to become the quartet Organik Fource.

This evening’s show featured Kirkland’s regular Latin quintet featuring Sprakes, drummer Steve Wyndham and Latin percussion specialist Jon Richmond. Mike Green stood in on electric bass (or bass guitar, if you will) and the sextet line up was completed by vibraphonist Roger Beaujolais, who regularly performs with Kirkland’s groups and was a guest on “The Music’s On Me”.

A prolific sideman Beaujolais is also a bandleader in his own right and a number of his albums have been reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann, including “Blue Reflections” (2007), “Mind The Gap” (2013, “Sunset” (2017) and “Barba Lunga” (2019), the last named recorded with Italian musicians.

The livestream was introduced from Brecon by Ruth Gibbs of The Muse, before moving back to Chesterfield as the sextet introduced themselves with a brief rendition of their theme tune, the Kirkland original “Freedom Fiesta”, a short introduction to the instrumental voices of the band.

Kirkland then spoke to inform us that the name of the project is now “Latin Lowdown”, but with the focus very much remaining on Brazilian and other Latin music.

The first full length piece was “Captain Bacardi”, a tune written by Antonio Carlos Jobim and named for a notorious inhabitant of Rio’s bars, with Kirkland suggesting that the titular character represented a Brazilian counterpart to Miles Davis’ “Freddie Freeloader”.
Perhaps best regarded as the true opener this represented a lively start with the rhythm section combining superbly and demonstrating an impressive command of the Brazilian rhythms. Beaujolais took the first solo, impressing with his virtuoso four mallet technique and setting the standard for similarly sparkling solos from Sprakes on guitar and Kirkland at the piano. With Green anchoring things on electric bass there was also the opportunity for Wyndham and Richmond to enjoy something of a drum and percussion workout.

Following this energetic beginning Kirkland elected to “take things down” with a performance of the song “So Many Stars”, written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. The Brazilian style arrangement was inspired by versions by Sergio Mendes and Natalie Cole and was the first piece to feature Kirkland’s singing. Her well enunciated delivery of the evocative lyric was augmented by the shimmer of Beaujolais’ vibes, Sprakes’ gentle guitar chording and the rustle of shakers and brushed drums. Beaujolais’ vibes solo saw him deploying a softer sound on the instrument, a quality also reflected in the subsequent instrumental features from Sprakes and Kirkland.

Sourced from “The Music’s On Me” the Kirkland original “O Gato Molhado” was a playful vocal item dedicated to the memory of her cat Herbie, who I’d like to think was named after Herbie Hancock. With a title translating as “Soggy Moggy” the song describes Herbie’s penchant for going out in the rain, and his pleasure at being dried with a towel, pretty unusual behaviour for a cat, I think you’ll agree.
The lively performance featured Kirkland singing in both English and Portuguese, with instrumental solos from Sprakes, Kirkland and the brilliant Beaujolais, the latter surfing the bars and ‘rocking the tea trolley’ as only he can.

The first set concluded with a slowed down arrangement of “Besame Mucho”, written as far back as 1940 by the Mexican composer Consuelo Vasquez. Performed as an instrumental this was an unusual and intriguing take on the song and included expansive solos from Beaujolais and Sprakes.

During the interval Lynne Gornall of Brecon Jazz chatted briefly to Kirkland via Zoom, an interview that had been recorded earlier in the week, the day after Kirkland’s performance at Ronnie’s. They talked about how Beaujolais had come to be involved with Kirkland’s projects, with Wendy explaining that she had first heard of him when she was involved with Sheffield Jazz Club and remembered his name when taking over at Chesterfield. Thinking that a vibraphonist would represent a welcome change from the usual procession of saxophonists she invited him to play at Chesterfield Jazz Club, where she and Sprakes form part of the house band. An immediate musical rapport was established, with Kirkland praising the vibraphonist’s versatility and his ability to play in a variety of jazz styles, ranging from bebop to funk to Latin to acid jazz.

Kirkland also spoke of her love of Brazilian and Afro-Cuban music and that this sextet was designed to specialise in these styles, including bossa, samba and more contemporary developments in Brazilian and Afro-Cuban music.

Set two commenced with an arrangement of the song “Down In Brazil”, composed by the American singer-songwriter Michael Franks. This was a vocal item with Kirkland giving a warm rendition of Franks’ lyrics, a rather sentimentalised love letter to the virtues of ‘Old Brazil’, based on his experiences of visiting the country. Instrumental solos came from Beaujolais on vibes and Kirkland at the piano.

Sprakes’ versatile and fluent guitar playing had been a feature of the evening thus far and we were now treated to his compositional skills on a number titled “Fairway Blues”, inspired by his hobby of golf. This may have been a piece with its origins on the golf courses of Derbyshire but its rhythms were authentically Afro-Cuban with Wyndham and Richmond again linking up convincingly to propel expansive instrumental solos from Sprakes, Beaujolais and Kirkland.

The extended workouts on “Fairway Blues” ensured that the next number, “Papa Gato”, was to be the last. Written by Charlie Otwell, once the pianist with percussionist Pancho Sanchez’s band, this was the second song of the evening about a cat, although this time perhaps one of the two legged variety. Here Kirkland invited a little audience participation from the select crowd at The Olde House and it was good to hear fans clapping along and shouting their delight at the music. Again fuelled by busy Afro-Cuban rhythms this was a lively piece that ended the evening on an energetic note with Kirkland at the piano and Beaujolais on vibes the featured soloists.

In closing Kirkland thanked her band, plus the sound engineers at both venues, Dave Higgins in Chesterfield and Emily Darlington of Ratio Productions in Brecon. The sound quality was excellent throughout, although the visuals were a little below par, with leader Kirkland too often out of shot, even when she was singing. I’ve never been to The Olde House but suspect that this may have been due to the small and intimate nature of the venue.

Musically the performance was very impressive with every member of the sextet playing well and with Kirkland, Sprakes and Beaujolais all delivering some dazzling solos, with the latter, a consistently flamboyant performer, frequently threatening to steal the show. I was also impressed by the way in which Wyndham and Richmond combined, with Green anchoring it all from the bass. The sextet’s love of their chosen material shone through, with the original items standing up well alongside the outside selections.

With strong livestream ticket sales and positive audience reactions, both live and online, this first collaboration between the Brecon and Chesterfield Jazz Clubs can be considered an outstanding success and is possibly one that could be repeated, depending on what the future holds.

The forging of closer links between jazz clubs is something to be encouraged and ‘hybrid’ events such as tonight’s, featuring both a physical and online audience, are probably here to stay, whether from single venues or across a wider network of co-operating clubs.



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