Review – Kenny Wheeler, Norma Winstone, London Vocal Project – Mirrors – released Feb 2013

You might be forgiven for thinking this latest album by Kenny Wheeler is a jaunty, happy album. Well, it is at first listening and on many levels. I defy anyone not to want to join in with the vocals, the melodies float and soar, the London Vocal Project sound so light and airy, their voices young, reminding me of the Sixties. Then you listen to the words. This is music set by Kenny Wheeler to a series of poems by Stevie Smith, Lewis Carroll and WB Yeats.  Some are whimsy such as those by Lewis Carroll – the title of the album Mirrors refers to Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland.  But Mirrors could also refer to holding up a glass to the human heart because so many moods are explored in this album. So the bright numbers like Humpty Dumpty and Tweedledum are broadly balanced by the sad, wistful poems of Stevie Smith and WB Yeats.  I’m glad they chose not to put Stevie’s most famous poem, Not Waving but Drowning to music, perhaps that would have been too obvious?

The more I listen to this album the more I discover it is an extremely complex affair. Within each composition I might hear words which I’d usually understand as melancholy or bitter and then I hear the voices and the rhythm section and they seem to be saying the opposite of what I hear in the words. Hence the initial impression of an upbeat album.  Take a poem like The Broken Heart by Stevie. It’s a very bitter poem – he told me he loved me – the voices are sweet and upbeat.  Then an ironic sax enters, mocking the voices.   It leaves you as confused as life, that you must smile at grief. 

Jazz set to poetry demands you listen to the words. Take He is dressed in grey chiffon. At least I think it is chiffon. It has a peculiar look, like smoke.  An evocative image  – you wonder how you would read these words aloud yourself and then you realise that what is so perfect about this album is that the music suits the poems so perfectly you forget which came first. The pacing, emphasis and intonation all are so perfect I can see teachers of ‘A’ level English reaching for this album to introduce their classes to these poets and they will thank Kenny Wheeler for his beautiful compositions.

Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll is absolutely perfect. Norma’s wistful, fragile voice perfectly captures a lazy July evening in a boat, you are lulled into a doze. But wait,  what is coming?  A sense of anxiety in the fading notes then Kenny’s brittle flugelhorn and a beautiful solo by Mark Lockheart on sax. Discordant voices lead us forward in time and we realise we have been dreaming.  It’s magical.

Death and bereavement stalk these poems but so gently. I particularly love Nikki’s piano on The Bereaved Swan, it is so delicate. It goes without saying that every note of Kenny’s is inspired and haunting. This perfect album is the jewel in the crown for Edition Records.

Kenny Wheeler, flugelhorn
Norma Winstone, vocals
London Vocal Project directed by Pete Churchill
Nikki Iles, piano
Mark Lockheart, saxophones
Steve Watts, double bass
James Maddren, drums

Mirrors is available on Edition Records 

Review: Mats Eilertsen Trio – Sails Set – released Feb 2013

The Mats Eilertsen Trio’s latest album Sails Set is an exquisite album as contemplative as a quiet Flemish interior or a walk in fresh snow. The trio consists of Mats on double bass, Thomas Strønen on drums and Harmen Fraanje on piano and voice. None of the compositions is attributed to any one musician, the album is a deliberate attempt at equality, but in an unforced way. Most of the eleven tracks are quite short, like delicate Japanese poems. They create individual moods, you can listen to them separately or from start to finish, each complements the others.

The album opens with the title track Sails Set, a gentle piano like a breath of wind in a sail, water ripples beneath the boat, there is a sense of possibility, space, exploration and tranquility which pervades the whole album. You are in very safe hands here, like a well-established crew on a ship, each member trusts the others, no-one feels the need to lead or dominate, there are no raised voices. There is perfect empathy, the result is playing as delicate as a spider’s web. On this journey you look at the stars, orbit our earth, make friends with a stray dog, pass a lighthouse, are bathed in moonlight, safely navigate currents, make landfall and feel sand on your toes, listen to some music and finally realise you are alone but you are not lonely, just as it is hard to feel lonely looking at a starry sky.

Sails Set is Mats Eilertsen’s fourth release on the Norwegian label, Hubro. Hubro’s website says the label is dedicated to the album as a physical object. I like that. I appreciate an album as an art work. Have we not all, on occasion, bought an ECM album for the cover alone? This album comes in a simple cardboard sleeve, the liner notes are sparce and cool as glacial ice. Hubro’s website is clean, effective, it does the job without fuss. This extreme simplicity in presentation enables the music to speak, and it does, perfectly. This is music to meditate to. It clears your mind of everyday clutter, leaving you at peace. Highly recommended.

Sails Set

Mats Eilertsen, double bass

Thomas Strønen, drums

Harman Fraanje, piano and voice