REVIEW: London Vocal Project - Jon Hendricks' Miles Ahead - European Premiere at Kings Place

Pete Churchill, soloists and the London Vocal Project at the end
of the European premiere of Jon Hendricks' Miles Ahead

London Vocal Project - Jon Hendricks' Miles Ahead
(Kings Place Hall One, 21 May 2017. Review by John L. Walters)

Pete Churchill and the London Vocal Project (LVP) are making history. They have realised Jon Hendricks’ ambition to make a vocalese version of Miles Ahead, the groundbreaking album of orchestral jazz by Miles Davis and Gil Evans. French jazz critic André Hodeir, in his sleeve notes for the original LP sleeve, described its contents as ‘ten little concertos assembled in a vast fresco’, and his allusion to the great art of the past is entirely appropriate. Davis, playing flügelhorn throughout, is the only soloist, supported by ‘19+’, a jazz big band enhanced by extra brass and woodwind but without chordal instruments. Evans’ arrangements have a ‘classical’ seriousness in their depth and dynamics, yet they feel light and easy on the ear. And though six decades have passed since Miles stepped into New York’s 30th Street Studio to record it (in May 1957), Miles Ahead still sounds breathtakingly fresh.

Hendricks, the godfather of harmonised vocalese, has been working on lyrics for Miles Ahead since the late 1960s. Manhattan Transfer recorded a sublime version of the Gil Evans composition Blues for Pablo on their underrated The Offbeat of Avenues (1991), but there have been few other realisations. What’s remarkable about Hendricks’ vision is that in addition to writing words for melodies and improvised solos (and re-working existing lyrics), he sought to write lyrics for all the internal parts, the countermelodies, comping [accompanying] chords, riffs and bravura ensemble passages – in Churchill’s words, ‘every note that Gil wrote.’

Pete Churchill persuaded Hendricks that the London Vocal Project could make his dream come true and it is down to the encouragement and tenacity of Churchill that the great singer-lyricist, now 95, completed all the words in time for its New York premiere last February (see Tessa Souter’s report  for LondonJazz News). And it’s also down to Churchill’s skill and hard graft as an arranger – he transcribed and scored the entire work for vocal ensemble – that it sounded so wonderful at Sunday evening’s sold-out London premiere;  it was a highly emotional occasion. To remind us of the source, he placed a mono vinyl copy of Miles Ahead against a stage monitor.

At Kings Place, the 24-strong LVP was augmented by Dave Whitford (bass) and Steve Brown (drums), plus three vocal soloists: Kevin Fitzgerald Burke, ‘national treasure’ Norma Winstone and Michele Hendricks, daughter of Jon. Churchill programmed the evening with Miles Ahead in the second half; a relaxed first set (all with vocalese lyrics by Jon Hendricks) included Neal Hefti’s Count Basie classic Li’l Darlin’ and Summertime (from the Davis/Evans Porgy and Bess, and a tune originally slated for Miles Ahead, according to its record producer George Avakian), with soloist Jessica Radcliffe. The LVP left the stage for trio-backed numbers by each of the soloists; Michele Hendricks delivered an exuberant Everybody’s Boppin’.

For the second set, Churchill left the piano to join the bass voices. Michele Hendricks began Miles Ahead by singing the album’s opener, Springsville. The choir performed all ten tracks in album order, so Fitzgerald Burke then sang The Maids of Cadiz, floating on a super-smooth cloud of harmonised vocalese. Evans’ recomposition of the original Delibes tune was transformed further by Churchill’s sonorous arrangements, while Dave Whitford emerged from the shadows to play the prominent bass part. When Norma Winstone sang Dave Brubeck’s The Duke she totally ‘owned’ the Davis solo, and the LVP delivered the song’s elegant but intense contrasts, from chamber group, to shouting big band, to cool, spacious trio. The tune's erudite hat-tip to Duke Ellington, underlined by Hendricks’ words: ‘'Life is loaded with melody, he writes it down for you and me.’ Winstone stayed out front to sing the Ira Gershwin-Kurt Weill classic My Ship, and Fitzgerald Burke ended ‘side one’ with the thrilling positivity of Hendricks’ lyrics for Miles Ahead; the LVP’s articulation of the interlocking ensemble lines was impressive.

Churchill then flipped over the vinyl LP, leaving it on the piano, to remind us that we had come to side two of Miles Ahead. This starts with one of the greatest Gil Evans compositions ever (which kind of means one of the best pieces of music, ever), the magisterial and multi-stranded Blues for Pablo. Michele Hendricks made the flugel part authentic and highly emotional, while Churchill’s orchestration showed his mastery of the LVP’s timbres, the sheer scope of sounds it is possible to make with massed human voices. The high key of Ahmad Jamal’s New Rhumba was a challenge, but Norma Winstone attacked the Davis part with glee, and the ‘comping’ behind her solo was delicious. Part of the genius of Miles Ahead is the way Evans made a big ensemble feel as supple as a trio; the LVP version keeps this quality.

Hendricks’ lyrics are a constant delight: when Davis’s New Rhumba solo quotes from Richard Rodgers’ show tune ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’, Hendricks quotes Lorenz Hart’s lyrics – ‘wild again, beguiled again’.

A stack of vocal harmonies started The Meaning of the Blues, like the exposed struts of a great bridge or tower, prefacing a restrained but moving solo part by Kevin Fitzgerald Burke, melding without pause into J. J. Johnson’s Lament. The final track, I Don’t Wanna Be Kissed (By Anyone Else But You) is the Jack Elliott and Harold Spina tune that Ahmad Jamal made his own. Gil Evans’ chart transformed Jamal’s trio version into a tongue-in-cheek showstopper; Michele Hendricks delivered the Davis part with aplomb while the LVP went into virtuoso overdrive.

The singers of the London Vocal Project are something else. Not only did they successfully face the technical challenge of singing Evans’ charts, tricky parts that foxed even New York’s finest session guys in the 1950s, they sang the entire album from memory, every note bearing a Jon Hendricks lyric. Not only do they sound like a coherent ensemble – a real band – with a signature sound like no other choir on the scene, they have the technique to stretch and adapt their sound to the scores’ more extreme demands. Yet they wear their learning lightly, as Miles Davis did, as Gil Evans did. Their reinterpretation of Miles Ahead gives new life, texture and meaning to this orchestral jazz ‘fresco’ in a way that enhances and deepens our understanding and enjoyment of the original. To re-use Gil Evans’ metaphor, Hendricks, Churchill and the LVP have made the most beautiful new bottle for this fine old wine.

The Encore - Horace Silver's The Preacher


SET LISTS

FIRST SET

1) It's Sand Man by Ed Lewis & Jon Hendricks (Lambert, Hendricks and Ross - from 'Sing a song of Basie') (LVP)
2) Summertime - by Gershwin. New lyrics by Jon Hendricks (from Miles Davis/Gil Evans - Porgy and Bess) (LVP)
3) I'll bet you thought I'd never find you - by Les McCann & Jon Hendricks (Kevin Fitzgerald Burke)
4) Hi-Fly - by Randy Weston & Jon Hendricks (Norma Winstone)
5) Ev'rybody's Boppin' - Jon Hendricks (Michele Hendricks)
6) Li'l Darlin' - by Neil Hefti & Jon Hendricks (Andi Hopgood, LVP)
7) O Pato - by Jaime Silva/Neuza Teixeira -,English lyric by Jon Hendricks (LVP)

SECOND SET.. (All Lyrics by Jon Hendricks)

1) Springsville (John Carisi) - Michele Hendricks.
2) Maids of Cadiz (Delibes) - Kevin Fitzgerald Burke.
3) The Duke (Dave Brubeck) - Norma Winstone.
4) My Ship (Kurt Weill) - Norma Winstone
5) Miles Ahead (Miles Davis/Gil Evans) - Kevin Fitzgerald Burke.
6) Blues for Pablo (Gil Evans) -Michele Hendricks
7) New Rhumba (Ahmad Jamal) - Norma Winstone
8) (Bobby Troup/Leah Worth) - Kevin Fitzgerald Burke
9) Lament (J.J.Johnson) - Kevin Fitzgerald Burke
10) I don't wanna be kissed (Jack Eliot/Harold Spina) - Michele Hendricks

ENCORE

The Preacher (Horace Silver, lyrics by Jon Hendricks)

Set lists courtesy of Pete Churchill and Nikki Iles

LINKS: Preview feature before the New York premiere
Emma Smith interviews Pete Churchill on BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Now
The history of the collaboration,
The first LVP Miles Ahead ‘teaser’, including footage of LVP in the recording studio,
Footage of final rehearsals and an interview with Pete Churchill prior to the New York premiere,

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