Kenny Wheeler

80th Birthday Tour, Saturday 23rd October 2010.

Octogenarian Kenny Wheeler has embarked upon an extended tour to celebrate his eighty years on this planet and in so doing has sought to present his music in a variety of contexts that vary from intimate quartet to full size big band. Taking the stage somewhat gingerly these days with the aid of a walking stick, Wheeler retains a youthful curiosity for jazz in all its guises. Proceedings began with the first of a three part suite composed by Wheeler and featuring a quartet that comprises of pianist John Taylor, bassist Chris Laurence and drummer Martin France with Kenny opting for his trusted flugehorn.

What immediately grabs the listener’s attention is the sheer lyrical quality and beauty of the foursome’s playing which vividly recalls the epic ECM recordings that Wheeler cut back in the 1970s such as ‘Gnu high’ (1975) and Deer Wan’ (1977). The trumpeter built upon the post-bop explorations of the 1960s and the freer musings of later in the decade (at least in terms of his own participation), yet retains a classicism of approach that in part reminds one of the quartet albums of Booker Little. The influence that Wheeler has exerted cannot be underestimated and yet trumpet quartets have become something of a rarity these days, Terence Blanchard and Dave Douglas being notable exceptions. Martin France proves himself to be that most sensitive of accompanists and the quartet sound provides a wonderful introduction to Kenny Wheeler’s music with the leader himself adding just the right touch of fragility to his tone. The pared down format also affords one the opportunity to hear the wonderful John Taylor stretch out on an extended solo one minute and then comp as part of the quartet during the next, and one who is richly deserving of a place among the doyen of British jazz pianists.

For the second piece Diana Torto and saxophonists Stan Sulzmann and Julien Argüelles enter centre stage to transform the quartet into a septet. Particularly fascinating is the use of Torto in this context as an added layer of sound, not unlike a keyboard instrument, though she is already a fine vocalist in her own right. Kenny Wheeler is that most generous of leaders in that he recognised early on in his career as a leader that it is not necessary to constantly be the focus of attention and consequently there is ample space in which the other instrumntalists can operate and indeed thrive. Conductor Pete Churchill meanwhile expertly keeps the ensemble in coherent order and regularly entertains the audience with informative details on the pieces and witty banter. A second feature of Wheeler bands is the totally uncliched manner in which the solos unfold. This lends an additional air of spontaneity to the ensemble sound and helps keep the music fresh.

For the third and final part of the suite, tenorist Evan Parker enters the stage and immediately sets off an a freeform excursion with Taylor vamping to good effect. If the musings of the former comes as a surprise to some members of the audience, it is a totally logical extension of the Wheeler repertoire when, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, he openly embraced the freer concepts of jazz musicians such as Anthony Braxton and Tony Oxley and became a part of groups such as the Global Unity Orchestra. In stark contrast to Parker, Stan Sulzmann is schooled rather in the bop of Stan Getz and even hard bop (though still beautiful lyricism) of Hank Mobley and Ronnie Scott. The suite ends with all three saxophonists playing in unison before Taylor takes off on another engaging solo.

Fully warmed up, the big band proper enters including Italian electric guitarist John Parricelli. This is a golden opportunity for Kenny Wheeler to introduce some recently composed pieces including the delightful ‘Canta number 6’. Wheeler has in fact been a consistently prolific composer and joins a select band of trumpeters including Dizzie Gillespie and Lee Morgan who have made a significant impact on other jazz musicians with their writing skills. ‘Canta number six’ is a mid-tempo piece with a floating quasi-waltz feel and plenty of space for the soloists to explore. Once this has been accomplished, the format is pared down to a truly thrilling duet between Torto on scat vocals and Parricelli on guitar.

One thing that becomes evident as the evening unfolds is that while Wheeler is now wisely more choos(e)y about when and for how long he might solo, there is no obvious diminution in his playing chops. An interesting aside is the standard ‘I didn’t know what time it was’, an evergreen of the great American songbook, which is taken here at a slower tempo than per usual. Here the big band reverts to quartet plus vocals and tenor saxophone with Wheeler playing a particularly plaintive solo. The delicate arrangements and accompaniments of the saxophonists in particular are simply breathtaking. Throughout the number there are various changes in tempo. With a guitar solo that reminds one of Bill Frisell in his prime before the tempo returns to its initial phase. On fine ensemble pieces such as ‘Upwards’, the exchange between pianist and big band emphasizes the advantage of the larger format in that its elasticity facilitates musical contrasts while on another number, ‘The long wait’, vocalist Torto plays off the big band sound with Ray Warleigh undertaking an especially fiery alto saxophone solo.

During the second half of the evening, further Wheeler compositions were showcased such as the lilting mid-tempo waltz that is ‘456’. Of note here is a particularly fine and surprisingly warm solo from baritonist Julien Argüelles from an instrument that is often considered to be a somewhat cold sounding instrument, but not here. Kenny Wheeler has clearly been influenced by another great Canadian conductor and arranger, a certain Gil Evans, and no more is this evident than on the intro to ‘Canta number one’ before the tempo shifts up a gear. Parricelli here plays a delightful 1970s esque solo that recalls both John Abercrombie in full flight and the young Pat Metheny. As with his best work, the large scale pieces are designed with a clearly defined structure while still inviting freedom from the individual band members. A follow up piece to the aforementioned, ‘789’ is an enticing number with wordless vocals from Torto who excels throughout in her role while the intruigingly titled ‘Double w’ provides an unusual spot for both Wheeler and Parker to engage in some free wheeling (no pun intended) cutting edge solos, a passing nod to Wheeler’s mid-career stylistic change, before the rest join in.

Both individually and collectively, the Kenny Wheeler big band are an outstanding formation by any evaluation, but on this evening they are more than willing to allow the leader to take all the accolades. In some respects Kenny Wheeler is a reluctant figure to take the limelight, yet as his impressive discography amply illustrates, it is a challenge that he has been more than able to rise up to and this over several decades. A fititng standing ovation sets the seal on a night that was first and foremost a joyous celebration of the trumpeter’s craft.

Tim Stenhouse

Astral Travelling Since 1993