INTERVIEW: John Korsrud (new album Suite for Hard Rubber Orchestra feat. Norma Winstone - Kenny Wheeler's 'Last Major Work')

John Korsrud directing the Hard Rubber Orchestra
at the Orpheum in Vancouver in 2017
Photo credit and © Diane Smithers

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the last large work Kenny Wheeler created,” writes Canadian composer, trumpeter and bandleader John Korsrud in the sleeve-notes for Kenny Wheeler’s Suite for Hard Rubber Orchestra. Wheeler ’s creative flowering in the last years of his life had already produced the suite The Long Waiting, performed in his 80th year of 2012, and released on CD. This new record featuring the Vancouver-based orchestra to whom the work is dedicated, and vocal soloist Norma Winstone, brings the revelation that there was another chapter in Kenny Wheeler's oeuvre after that. It therefore represents a unique addition to the catalogue of the Canadian-born trumpeter and composer, whose work has been such a huge inspiration all over the world. In this interview with Sebastian, John Korsrud explains the background:

LondonJazz News: Please can you first solve a mystery: how did your orchestra get its name and when was it formed?

John Korsrud: Hard Rubber refers to both hard rubber saxophone mouthpieces and hard rubber percussion mallets. It was a phrase taken by random out of a book of orchestration just minutes before sending off our first press release for our debut concert in 1990. Truthfully, I dropped my finger in a book, and I thought "perfect!".

LJN: How does the orchestra function and what repertoire does it normally play?

JK: We play only three to four times a year and each concert is unique. We perform original material by myself and other Canadian composers. We commission often, commissioning both "jazz" and new music "classical" composers. We also occasionally produce multi-media shows such as operas and even a couple of new music ice shows, including one for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. We have toured Canada often, and once to Holland.

Members of the Hard Rubber Orchestra
Publicity Photo

LJN: Where did the original connection to Kenny Wheeler come from? Have you known him personally for a long time?

JK: I met Mr. Wheeler originally at the Banff Centre for Fine Arts in 1984. He had a long association to Banff through Dave Holland who was the jazz director there for several years. I've met Kenny several times since 1984, usually through projects involving Vancouver trombonist/ pianist Hugh Fraser. Surprisingly to me, Kenny remembered me when I phoned him, and he agreed to compose a 10-minute piece for us. We applied for a commissioning grant through the Canada Council for the Arts. But months before we received the results of the competition, a manila envelope full of Wheeler's original hand-written music arrived! His handwriting can be hard to decipher, and we employed Vancouver composer Jill Townsend to make score and parts. She was also our extra set of ears during the recording and is also a huge fan of Wheeler's music.

Most importantly, we wanted to get Ms. Norma Winstone involved. They have been close musical collaborators for decades. The importance of having her beautiful voice, her knowledge of his music, her generosity to this project cannot be overstated.

LJN:  How did the idea of this piece emerge?

JK: Wheeler was a close colleague to a friend of mine, Vancouver trombonist/ pianist Hugh Fraser. They had worked often over the years and were always in touch. It was Hugh who suggested Hard Rubber Orchestra commission Mr. Wheeler because by this time Kenny was finding it difficult to play trumpet, but was keen to compose.

LJN: It is made up of five “Movements” linked by three shorter “Improvisations,” and all of the improvisations involve Brad Turner on trumpet. What’s the story there?

JK: Mike Herriott is the trumpet soloist in the large ensemble pieces. He also knew Kenny well, and would visit him often in London. But I really wanted to get Vancouver trumpeter Brad Turner involved too. Having duets in between the movements seemed like a nice way to hear Brad's voice and make the suite breathe a bit more. Kenny would often have free duets in between movements when performing his big band pieces, so this was correct "performance practice", as classical musicians like to call it. Somehow, these duets echo Kenny's trumpet voice and have a beautiful introspective feel to them. Also, I don't think it was intentional, but to me, the trumpet/piano duet evokes the piano voice of Wheeler's long-time collaborator, and Norma Winstone's recently deceased former husband, John Taylor.

LJN:  Were you able to perform it during Kenny Wheeler’s lifetime and did he hear any of it?

JK: Hugh sent him a recording. We don't know if he heard it or not. He might not have been too well by this time.

LJN: You recorded it in 2016 after Kenny had passed away. Can you remember the mood of the sessions?

JK: We are all huge fans of Kenny's music, and we really wanted to have a recording he would have been proud of, and something representative of his recording style. The recording was effortless that day. He writes so well for the jazz orchestra. The music plays itself. The band was solid and the solos are beautiful. We are all very proud of this beautiful work.



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