Kenny Wheeler: Collected Works On ECM is a handsome volume edited by Fred Sturm for Universal Edition. The first four parts of The Sweet Time Suite and “Sophie” are presented as full big band charts; another eleven themes have advanced lead sheets with written out piano voicings and horn counterpoint.
A key figure lurking in the background of Wheeler’s harmonic sensibility is Ralph Vaughan Williams, who conjured evocative English landscapes with open modal harmonies. Wayne Shorter also loved Vaughan Williams, and the line from Shorter’s writing on Ju-Ju and Speak No Evil to the music on Wheeler’s ECM albums is a smooth one.
There is not a single Tadd Dameron II/V in this Wheeler book; there’s not much blues either. Instead, there is a certain amount of 60’s free jazz chaos, plus a natural heraldic quality preached from Wheeler’s commanding lead voice on trumpet and flugelhorn.
“‘Smatta” (From Gnu High with Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette) A famous track from Wheeler’s most famous album. Jarrett is the X-factor, treating the music in high rhapsodic fashion. Bars of 3/4 interrupt the 4/4 flow. At the time this was uncommon, and the band isn’t overwhelmingly comfortable. The blowing changes given by the composer in the book are slightly more complicated than those played on the record.
Heyoke Suite: Part 2 (From Gnu High) The opening waltz of “Heyoke” is not in the book. The chart to the free tempo fanfare “Part 2” gives some clues as to what almost amounts to breakdown in the studio. At first Jarrett is content to read the piano voicings and support the written melody, but when the improvising begins, Jarrett goes into a more open Paul Bley zone. Holland does what he can to keep everything in line. A kind of magic persists.
3/4 in the Afternoon (From Deer Wan with Jan Garbarek, John Abercrombie, Ralph Towner, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette) The two guitars intertwine gracefully over slow 3/4. A major triad with an added 4th is a key Wheeler sonority. After a 16-bar tune is heard once it goes up a half-step, another Wheeler signature (in this case with an added four bar tag.) Both Wheeler and Garbarek phrase the written melody freely. The trumpet solo is gorgeous, but Towner sounds a bit like he is reading from the chart.
River Run (from Around 6 with Evan Parker, Tom van der Geld, Jean-Francois Jenny-Clark, Edward Vesala) I owned this LP as a teen but didn’t listen to it as much as the ones with Holland and DeJohnette. The opening fanfare gives way to a bounce marked “Charleston feel” in the score. The circular 16-bar blowing form is pure Wheeler.
May Ride (from Around 6) A long vibes and bass duo vamping in 6/4 takes up some space before the good melody and changes happen. Truthfully this band is not as strong as the bands on the other albums here.
Foxy Trot (from Double, Double You with Michael Brecker, John Taylor, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette) John Taylor is perhaps more sympathetic to the composer than Jarrett, and the opening paragraph of piano on “Foxy Trot” is exactly what is on the page. Is Michael Brecker’s shiny sonority out of place in this music? I’ve never been able to decide. The form in tempo is another classic Wheeler progression, something abstract that nonetheless remains firmly bound to traditional tension and release. This style has gone onto be wildly influential, although most of the imitations lack Wheeler’s folkloric inner ear and commitment to naturalness.
Three for D’reen (from Double, Double You) An unusually long form in slow waltz time. Due credit to Holland and DeJohnette: They play so well together and are truly perfect for Wheeler. The ECM sound is partly defined by DeJohnette’s cymbals, which are large and in charge throughout Gnu High, Deer Wan, and Double, Double You. Taylor is excellent, although perhaps a bit literal when reciting the chord scales. Wheeler himself avoids collegiate-level chord scale boxiness through ragged phrasing, which at times recalls an avant master like Don Cherry. Jarrett, Garbarek, and Abercrombie are usually convincing, but Taylor, Brecker, Towner and others from this era (and certainly many lesser lights since) don’t always transcend what sounds like staring at the page of scales. More bebop and blues would probably fix it.
Blue for Lou (from Double, Double You) A ballad with alternating 4/4 and 2/4 bars. In this case the score is particularly helpful.
The Sweet Time Suite (Part I-IV) from Music for Large and Small Ensembles with horn section + Evan Parker, Norma Winstone, John Abercrombie, John Taylor, Dave Holland, Peter Erskine)
1) Opening On DTM, Darcy James Argue offers a technical analysis of this beautiful movement.
2) Called “Kind Folk” in the book but listed as “For H.” on the disc When the topic is music at tempo, Wheeler the composer seems to find a compelling progression first, before then amplifying the harmony in reasonably obvious fashion for the full horn sections. It works, but it also lacks a certain inner chromatic mystery that I associate with Duke Ellington and other favorite large ensemble composers. Erskine had a lot of big band experience, he’s a good choice for this date, one joyous big drum fill setting up a brass shout make me laugh. Towards the end of the chart, the 4/4 vamp is reduced to 3/4, leading to…
3) For Jan An attractive waltz with trombone in the lead. When Wheeler himself plays the tune a second time, it makes a difference. There are other quality horn soloists on the album, but Wheeler’s own improvisations immediately sort the aesthetic and put the genre in a more sophisticated space. After the improvisations, the fortissimo written conversation between brass and saxes is convincing, the Fletcher Henderson era transformed into a more Wayne Shorter kind of conception. Winstone was a major Wheeler collaborator, and her lyrics for the return of the theme are not given in the book, an oversight.
4) For P.A. An impressionistic and cinematic ballad for tenor saxophonist Evan Parker with ticking eighth notes in the guitar. I like it, but I prefer it when the tempo picks up and Parker starts to play in a more avant style. The noisy tenor cadenza over stop time is an album highlight. (It always helps when Wheeler has soloists who color outside the lines in the manner of the composer’s own asymmetrical phrasing.) There’s a swing section for a bass solo, a bit of 6/8, and a return to the opening cinematic texture.
(The final two movements of the Suite Time Suite are not in the book.)
Sophie (from Music for Large and Small Ensembles) A very pretty pair of chorales for brass and saxes lead into a rhythmic tune. Winstone’s wordless vocal unison over the full horns gives something looser and more dangerous to the texture. Great trumpet solo.
Ma Belle Helene (from The Widow in the Window with John Abercrombie, John Taylor, Dave Holland, Peter Erskine) Again, an even-eighth tune (this time 20 bars) repeats up a half step. Abercrombie navigates this kind of polychord logic well, with a casual, even bluesy, approach.
Nicolette (From Angel Song with Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell, and Dave Holland) Lee Konitz was an inspired choice for the front line. As far as I know, Konitz (at the time about 70 years old) had never done much complex written music in the Wheeler style. Still, a basic lyricism is the common tongue, and the absence of drums relaxes the expectations of “burning solos on hard changes.” Bill Frisell doesn’t always play this kind of harmonic movement, either, but his warm and tangy signature sonority is surprisingly perfect. “Nicolette” is a thoughtful AABA waltz.
Unti (from Angel Song) Frisell takes a bluesy intro. The score is marked “G minor 11” but Frisell bends it into a bit of folksy dominant. There’s some horn harmony written that Konitz doesn’t play until the end; Konitz also plays in the key rather than on the complex changes used by Wheeler and Frisell.
Perhaps other pieces on Angel Song land more securely than “Unti,” for example the small group arrangement of “Kind Folk” (also heard above in the big band arrangement). Holland vibes on the busy bass line beneath seriously strong trumpet and alto solos. As players, both Konitz and Wheeler have that precious grit that lifts any melody into something meaningful. It’s great to hear Wheeler’s own composed lines with twice the spice on Angel Song.