Kenny Wheeler ‘Songs for Quintet’ (ECM) 4/5

kenny-wheelerAcclaimed and much loved trumpeter Kenny Wheeler passed away in September 2014. “Songs for Quintet” is his last studio album, recorded in the late summer of 2013 at Abbey Road Studios and produced by ECM head Manfred Eicher. Some of Wheeler’s closest collaborators feature on the album; saxophonist Stan Sulzmann, guitarist John Parricelli, bassist Chris Laurence and drummer Martin France. It is a fitting line-up with all of the musicians having performed with the trumpeter throughout the last decade, bringing a warmth and intimate honesty to this recording. The album itself sits nicely alongside some of Wheeler’s previous releases, bringing to mind 1996’s “Angel Song”, or even 1975’s “Gnu High”. Overall, there is a subtle humanity to the music being performed, one which has always been prevalent in Wheeler’s music. His trumpet and flugelhorn playing may sound hesitant at times, but this just reinforces the gentle beauty of the compositions. “Songs For Quintet” provides us with moments of magic, alongside some excellent, thoughtful performances, especially from tenor saxman Sulzmann, and the increasingly brilliant guitar playing of John Parricelli. The quintet even let the sparks fly on the freewheeling “1076”, a wonderful piece of music. For the most part though, the tunes are what you might expect from Wheeler; carefully constructed, allowing for plenty of character and intimacy. Sulzmann and Wheeler seem to share a near telepathic understanding, whether playing in unison, or bouncing ideas off one another. “Pretty Liddle Waltz”, one of my favourite tunes on the album, highlights this perfectly, with the horns working so well together. “Jigsaw”, another excellent piece, provides some masterful soloing, most notably from Wheeler, with an elegance that sums up what a stunning yet understated musician he has always been. Alongside the new tunes, there’s an imaginative reworking of an old Azimuth tune that is now titled “Old Time”, along with another interpretation of an older tune, “The Long Waiting”, a stripped back version of a previous big band outing. Guitarist Parricelli excels throughout, whether laying down spacey backdrops, subtle harmonies, or shining brightly with some effortless solos. His performance here truly captures the spirit of Wheeler’s compositions, adding so much to the sensitivity and ambience of the whole recording. I’ve always been a big admirer of bassist Chris Laurence, and once again, along with the perfectly measured drumming of Martin France, the duo provide a balanced backdrop for the rest of the band to work with. “Songs For Quintet” gets better the more you listen to it, its hidden depths revealing themselves slowly, rewarding the listener with what is a suitably beguiling and dignified final album from Kenny Wheeler, one of the world’s most respected jazz musicians. His music will undoubtedly live on for years to come, and having always been an inspiration to many, this will continue to be the case long after his passing.

Mike Gates