Jazz artist Wendy Kirkland is on a mission to remind people that not only was Nina Simone a stunning singer, she was a stonkingly good pianist too.
Kirkland is celebrating the vocal and instrumental accomplishments of Simone and other talented female piano-playing singers with a new show called Piano Divas.
It features a selection of songs made famous by the likes of Simone, Diana Krall and Eliane Elias, with some original material from Kirkland included for good measure.
Kirkland is quick to point out that she’s not attempting to imitate or mimic these major artists. Her goal is to perform these works in her own style with her own band – which includes her guitarist husband Pat Sprakes, bassist Paul Jeffries and drummer Steve Smith.
Kirkland’s introduction to music came via the piano. As a child she trained classically until her father gave her a collection of transcriptions of Dave Brubeck’s Time Out and Time Further Out.
She fell in love with jazz but as a teenager living in Derbyshire had no outlet to explore the genre. So she taught herself by poring over Brubeck’s music and listening to any jazz record she could get her hands on.
“Listening to jazz is the best way to get the jazz idiom right,” she says. “I particularly love Shirley Horn. She doesn’t over-sing and she annunciates perfectly.”
Kirkland later worked as an accompanist to singers and played keys in various bands (and taught on the side to pay the bills).
“Then out of the blue someone asked me if I could sing, as they felt it would open up more opportunities to me if I could do both,” she says.
“That got me thinking. I was already singing in a choir, so I decided to try it. Singing jazz is completely different from choral singing so I had a lot of learn. It’s also hard when you start to play and sing together – it’s a bit like rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time. But it came together.”
Later Kirkland was booked for a gig and, when her usual guitarist couldn’t make it, a friend recommended she ask Sprakes to join her. It was the start of a formidable professional and personal partnership. The two worked closely together on Kirkland’s first album, Piano Divas, the album released last year which inspired the current tour. It was recorded with the help of crowdfunding.
Kirkland and Sprakes have another shared project: Chesterfield Jazz Club, which they started it in 2012.
“There wasn’t a jazz scene in the area so we thought we’d start one ourselves,” Kirkland says. “About 200 people turned up to our first night, so we knew we were onto a good thing. We hold it once a month. It goes to show people do have an appetite for jazz music.”
For tour dates visit www.wendykirkland.com