This heart-felt tribute to the great Canadian-born, but British-based trumpet and flugelhorn maestro was a long time in the making. The recording sessions span a period from March 2015 to February 2016 and only now sees the light of day. However, like all good things, it was certainly worth the wait. Wheeler’s unique horn sound was silenced in 2014. Fortunately, he left behind a legacy of compositions for others to re-cast in their own way. Here we have ten of his instantly recognisable themes re-imagined by a group of musicians who clearly revere the great man.
Wheeler always had a musically inquisitive mind. When he moved to Britain in the 1952 he was a member of the Buddy Featherstonhaugh quintet and in the 1960s began a long association with big band leader John Dankworth. He also formed part of Eric Burden and the Animals Big Band. In the mid 1960s he became involved with the free improvisation movement, working alongside drummer John Stevens and saxophonist Evan Parker in the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and the Globe Unity Orchestra. He also found time to record the seminal big band album ‘Song for Someone’ which combined his own distinctive writing with passages of free improvisation. His larger ensemble resurfaced on occasional live BBC broadcasts and a fabulous album for ECM in 1990. He left behind a large discography under his own name and with others and these are testament both to his playing and his compositions.
It’s no surprise therefore that Jensen and Treseler’s tribute album is equally wide-ranging in terms of style. This no mere repertory band, faithfully re-creating Wheeler’s music, which has influenced generations of musicians. Wheeler was a prolific composer and the ten compositions here were picked from a list of around thirty that the musicians had shortlisted. The recording evolved from the idea for a tribute concert. Jensen and Treseler had both worked with Wheeler in the past and this enabled them to bring to bear a fresh insight into the music. Alongside Jensen on trumpet and effects and Treseler on tenor saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet are Jensen’s regular working band on Geoffrey Keezer on piano, Martin Wind on bass and Jon Wikan at the drums with guests, vocalist Katie Jacobson and saxophonist Christine Jensen soprano.
The famous melancholy nature of many of Wheeler’s compositions often encourages a more reserved and delicate approach when re-interpreting it. That’s not the case here. The set opens with the first of two versions of ‘Foxy Trot’ and it’s almost as if you are hearing Kenny Wheeler himself with Treseler taking the part of Stan Sulzmann. However, with the high-octane rhythm section things soon get hot. The bassist, in particular, working hard to keep up the momentum of the piece. Next up is ‘Kind Folk’ and the mood becomes more contemplative.
‘546’ is next with Jacobson providing the wordless vocals, so much a trademark of Wheeler’s. After the introduction making effective use of bass clarinet, arco bass and vocals, the pace changes dramatically with Kezzer’s stabbing chordal interjections and powerful solo, before the ensemble re-enter. This is great fun. A pensive piano and double bass introduce ‘Gentle Piece’ before Jacobson and Jensen state the leisurely theme in unison. There’s more bass clarinet to enjoy too. This is a lengthy piece running in excess of 10 minutes but it holds the attention throughout.
‘Old Time’ introduces an infectious groove and “Bubber” Miley trumpet growls. This is an energetic performance from all concerned. ‘Duet’ is one of several pieces similarly named which appeared on Wheeler’s magnum opus ‘Music for Large and Small Ensembles’ and is here recreated by trumpet and tenor saxophone alone. The interplay between the musicians here is simply astonishing. A little gem running to little more than a minute.
No collection of Wheeler pieces would be complete without ‘Everybody’s Song But My Own’, a piece which has almost become a contemporary jazz ‘classic’. The extended introduction hints at a rather dramatic transformation, but as soon as the familiar and beguiling melody appears the seasoned need have no fears in this respect. This is probably the most energetic piece on the album.
‘Where do we Go from Here?’ could be said to be a tribute to another departed master, British pianist John Taylor, a regular sparring partner of Wheeler’s. This piece was originally a duet feature for them. Here, the co-leaders are in a mellow mood, putting in a near perfect performance. The heat is turned up around the mid-point of the tune when Keezer energetically enters the fray, before the understated elegance of the melody returns.
The set includes additional live versions of ‘Foxy Trot’ and ‘Old Time’ and it’s interesting to compare the different interpretations.
As we enter Autumn, it seems to me that this release could well be a strong candidate for ‘Album of the Year’. If you enjoy the music of Kenny Wheeler you will surely need to add this to your collection.