Everything on the stage at Kings Place on Sunday had taken time. A lot of it. Writing lyrics to every note of the whole Miles Ahead suite; extracting them from Jon Hendricks’ head, notating and arranging them; a choir that can make the sound of a perfectly blended string section or the stabbing riffs of a horn section; it all takes a lot of time. Years. The reviews are popping up of the evening and the music. John Walters’ account is hard to beat – giving the achievement due recognition in its vivid detail. This is a response more than a review.
When the now nonegenarian Jon Hendricks was nearing the completion of his self imposed, 50 year undertaking of setting lyrics to every solo, slur and nuance of every arrangement of Miles Ahead the reaction of his daughter Michele was ‘Who’s gonna sing this stuff?’ History doesn’t record the reaction of the musicians when first presented with Gil Evans’ score for Miles Ahead at the original recording session Posterity and critical acclaim have assured the result’s place in jazz history. On stage, behind Michele on Sunday at Kings Place was the answer to her question (gleefully pointed out by Pete Churchill):The London Vocal Project. Pointing to Pete she cried ‘.. this guy made it happen!’ It was impossible to listen without the knowledge of all that had led up to this. all that commitment, creativity and effort focused into forty odd minutes: sure they’ll do it again, yes they’ve been recording, but they’ll never do it again for the first time in London, here, now.
A wild imagining? A crazy dream? A magnificent obsession? Surely Hendricks’ idea was all of these. The story of the last six years of Pete Churchill’s work with Hendricks’ to complete the job, work with the choir, premiere the work in New York and now bring it back to London is well told elsewhere . We got a little taster three years ago one special Sunday at Ronnie’s.
And then the finished article was performed, with a copy of the vinyl original ceremonially in attendance on the stage and the choir fronted by Hendricks’ daughter Michele, Norma Winstone and Kevin Fitzgerald Burke singing Miles’ solos.
And Hendricks’ lyrics.
And then it was just about the music. And the sound.
I can still feel the swell of the arrangement in My Ship. I can still hear the horn stabs in Blues for Pablo. I can still here that very last chord, like a sigh.
And I still love that line from Maids of Cadiz – ‘If you would know what beauty is’
Everyone knew. This was an extraordinary moment. There was a special hush in a packed Ronnie Scott’s as Pete Churchill relived working with the legendary Jon Hendricks, taking down the 92 year old lyricist and singer’s words for the tunes from Miles Ahead, the seminal collaboration between Miles Davis and Gil Evans. And then we got to hear them, the first three arrangements translated for voices from the Gill Evans’ arrangements by Pete with Hendricks’ lyrics added and just a few days rehearsal since Pete’s return from New York: Maids of Cadiz, The Duke and My Ship. “If you would know what beauty is…” sang Anita Wardell and we sighed along.
It was well into the second half of the gig before that moment arrived. A long first set had swept through a stylistic pot pourri. There was selection of the Kenny Wheeler settings the group recorded on Mirrors and a new one of a Langston Hughes’ poem Jazzonia. So inspired was Wheeler by the Mirrors project that occasional new pieces still arrive through the post for Pete Churchill to work on with the choir. With shuffling of the piano chair between Pete Churchill and Nikki Iles; pop-up performances by members of the ensemble on tenor, flugel, accordion, mouth organ; another selection of tunes, a legacy of Pete Churchill’s work with Abdullah Ibrahim using lyrics penned by the South African including an energetic, grooving version of The Mountain; an exquisite setting of “He wishes for the cloths of heaven” by project member Andrew Wilde and we were fully reminded of the breadth of the projects the group have tackled and depth of their musical resources. Then they raised the roof with a storming gospel number (‘look we can do this too!’ they seemed to say) and closed the set with the loping waltz of Steve Swallow’s City of Dallas.
On their return we were gradually introduced to the new project. The rhythm section of Steve Watts on bass and percussionist Andres Ticino was augmented by Steve Brown on drums and a celebration of the lyrics of Jon Hendricks ensued. Hearing the vocal project sing Basie’s Sandman brought out what a beautifully blended ensemble sound they have and goodness, how they can swing! ‘Lil Darlin’ taken at a deliciously sleazy tempo gave Anita Wardell a chance to dig in and then we were hanging on Pete Churchill’s words with stories of hanging with Jon Hendricks. Hendricks’ ambition to put lyrics to the whole of Miles Ahead, gestated over decades and now beginning to be realised in this collaboration with Churchill is surely a little piece of jazz history. The performance at Ronnie’s of the first three pieces leaves no doubt that the London Vocal Project are more than equal to it. What an adventure they’ve embarked on with their animateur, peerless arranger, musical director and resident curator (and maker) of jazz history, Pete Churchill.