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.