Book of Kenny Wheeler

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.

Richie Beirach and Kenny Kirkland

Out now: Ruminations & Reflections – The Musical Journey of Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach from Cymbal Press. (Amazon link.)

Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach. It’s hard to think of one without the other. Ruminations & Reflections collects dialogues that give the pair a chance to tell stories, set the record straight, and consider their contribution.

I’ve read a lot of what Liebman has previously published, including the memoir Self-Portrait of a Jazz Artist: Musical Thoughts and Realities and the autobiography with Lewis Porter, What It Is: The Life of a Jazz Artist, but there has been less of Beirach’s direct personal opinion available. One gets the sense that Liebman steps back a bit in Ruminations & Reflections to let Beirach hold court.

And hold court Beirach does: the great pianist weighs in heavy on all sorts of topics. Of course, Liebman is ready to lay down the law as well. It is conventional for these things to be restrained and politically savvy, but the duo let it all hang out and say exactly what they think. It’s just great. Much of it is simply positive, of course, they both just love music, but there are a few tasty barbs and complaints as well.

Occasionally they are willing to define things in rather bald terms. For Beirach, the big three of classical music are Bach, Schoenberg, and Ligeti. Both agree that the big three of jazz are Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane, while the three jazz cats with the most swinging time feel are Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, and Elvin Jones.

(To be clear, I don’t necessarily endorse these opinions, but I do think they are interesting.)

The chapter on Chick Corea is worth the price of admission.

Richie: In those days for me it was McCoy, Herbie Hancock, and Chick. They had the linear approach mastered combined with fantastic original harmony, a great sense of swing, “killing” natural time, and a great understanding of the piano. All three were wonderful composers. They were the top of the line. The next record he did was Sundance with his amazing tune “The Brain,” which by the way is a 12-tone row. It is an incredible piece with great intervallic stuff.

Dave: I wonder if he got that from Coltrane’s “Miles Mode,” because that was Trane’s 12-tone tune.

Richie: Maybe, but I think he got it more from Schoenberg. I know he was working on this. Then he ends the melody of “The Brain” on a G minor pedal so here you have both worlds, the diatonic world of G minor pedal and the 12-tone world of the melody of “The Brain.” Chick solos on G minor pedal point with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette on bass and drums. It is one of the most iconic and burning solos ever. He utilizes everything McCoy has done and in my opinion even surpasses it in places in terms of pure virtuosity and intensity. Also he had Dave and Jack and those three of course were Miles’ rhythm section for couple of years so they worked together all the time. There was a certain synergy in that band because Dave Holland was like the horse. He loved to play time and gave Jack total freedom in a similar way that Ron Carter gave Tony Williams rhythmic freedom. Also Jack expanded the vision of what the drums could do in a small group situation. It was overpowering at times … it was so intense but it was always musical at the same time. The combination of 4/4 time with Dave and Jack while Chick played like a contemporary piano concerto greatly expanded the possibility of what was possible, helped by using the entire range of the keyboard. Generally jazz piano players usually don’t use whole range of the piano. To me this tune, “The Brain” was the next logical development after McCoy in the history of jazz piano.

Of course it went unnoticed by the jazz public.

More than most, Liebman has explained how to listen to his music, beginning with his book Lookout Farm: A Case Study of Improvisation for Small Group Jazz from the early ’70s. In this latest entry, Beirach offers substantial listening notes to the extensive Beirach/Liebman discography. In his way, Beirach is quite honest and humble about what he is trying to do, and I finished Ruminations & Reflections with even more respect for Beirach’s unique journey.

Kenny Kirkland’s shadow grows longer by the day. There are now two books: DOCTONE: An Oral History of the Legendary Pianist Kenny Kirkland by Noah Haidu (Amazon link) and Kenny Kirkland’s Harmonic and Rhythmic Language: A Model for the Modern Jazz Pianist by Geoffrey Dean ( link).

Both Haidu and Dean are players, and both books document a moment of completion, for Haidu made a corresponding record of Kirkland tunes with Todd Coolman and Billy Hart, while Dean’s book was based a doctoral thesis.

It’s thrilling that Haidu and Dean have made this contribution to the literature. The authors work in perfect counterpoint: Haidu’s book is packed with frank interviews from Kirkland’s family, peers, and followers (I especially enjoyed the chapter with Jason Moran), while Dean has transcribed a bevy of Kirkland solos and offers much technical insight.

One of the takeaways from the books is how much Kirkland is on tape, which is far more than a glance at a conventional discography suggests. Dean includes a few solos that are hard to get, including astounding flights through “Giant Steps” and McCoy Tyner’s “Four by Five,” while many interviewees in Haidu mention tapes of Kirkland in action with varied bands.

I myself have a bootleg trio set at Gilly’s in pretty good sound that should really have wider distribution, for it is even stronger than any of the commercially available Kirkland trio recordings.

Is there any chance of a new online repository of recordings, where students and fans can access the deep cuts? This kind of stewardship would make a difference: After all, it is Kenny Kirkland.

Drift by the Window

Sarah Deming has a hilarious new essay out in the Threepenny Review, “Are you Jewish?”

Roz Milner kind of blew my mind with this overview of Yoko Kanno and the soundtrack to Cowboy Bebop.

Lewis Porter finds the sound of Thelonious Monk knocking over a beer bottle on a record with Miles Davis.

Nate Chinen offers a close view of Brad Mehldau in concert at Vanguard.

Matthew Guerrieri celebrates Lukas Foss at 100 with an early Foss sonata.

The best TV I’ve seen this year is the recent HBO mini-series The Rehearsal with Nathan Fielder. Sarah and I went in cold, not knowing a thing about it, and we advise others to do the same. There are some pretty harsh critiques out there. To those philistines, I say: Art is ruthless, and The Rehearsal shows a path forward.

Two thumbs down to The Grey Man. Maybe the production team had too much money to play with? At any rate, the over-the-top superhero antics of The Grey Man makes a James Bond movie look like a documentary.

Top Gun: Maverick is a far more acceptable popcorn flick than The Grey Man because it plays a bit more by the rules of physics. They took that “Tom Cruise in a caper” thing from the banal Mission: Impossible franchise and gave it some gritty heft. It’s no masterpiece, but I liked it more than I expected.

Back to school, back to tour. Before fall gets any further along, a look back through a few summer photos:

Dance Heginbotham, who danced to my music so beautifully in the Berkshires
With Sarah Deming, Mark Padmore, and Vicki Mortimer, in St Endellion in Cornwall, after Padmore’s final performance of Peter Grimes (and his last night as Endellion music director after 11 amazing seasons)

Marta Sanchez and Sylvie Courvoisier
Billy Hart and Nasheet Waits
with David Virelles
with Jon Cowherd
Jerry Bergonzi, Gene Perla, Dave Liebman, and Adam Nussbaum in Detroit
Vinnie Sperrazza and Kush Abadey

The Baldwin that Paul Desmond gave to Bradley’s is now at the Jazz Gallery

Peter Washington and Al Foster

Rainbow as seen from Billy Hart’s porch in Montclair

In the Night Room

New DTM page: “Fiction Lets Me Get the Facts Right.” 

While a big bestseller during the horror boom of the 70’s and 80’s — a casual reader might know his name best from the collaborations with Stephen King — the late Peter Straub is harder to sum up than his peers. I knew Straub slightly and loved re-reading two of his best.

Don Was turned 70 the other day, so I put up a little homemade video for my socials. Don is from Detroit, and told me on Instagram, “Thank you for elevating Motor City birthday greetings to a whole new level!!!” 


This coming Tuesday, I’m at the Zinc Bar with Ben Street and Nasheet Waits.

Then on the weekend, Friday and Saturday, September 23 and 24, I’m at the Green Mill in Chicago with Matt Ulery and Jon Deitemyer. I played with Matt and Jon earlier this year, it was really fun, in fact they both had memorized my tunes in advance.

After that there’s a proper European swing with Billy Hart’s quartet featuring Mark Turner, Ben Street, and myself.

September 27-28 Paris/Duc Des Lombards
September 29 Philharmonie Luxembourg
September 30 Berlin/Zig Zag Club
October 1 Esslingen/Encounter Jazz
October 2. Milan/Blue Note
October 4 Jazz Club Ferrara
October 6 Bertinoro/Bistrot Colonna
October 7-8 London/Pizza Express

If you come to a gig, say hi!



Duke Ellington wrote a wonderful set of themes for Elizabeth II, The Queen’s Suite. Kevin Whitehead tells the story:

In 1958, at an arts festival in Yorkshire, Duke Ellington was presented to Queen Elizabeth II. They tied up the reception line for a few minutes, exchanging royal pleasantries; our Duke politely flirted with Her Majesty. Soon afterward, maybe that very night, Ellington outlined the movements of The Queen’s Suite. He recorded it with his orchestra the following year, sent it to Her Majesty, and declined to release it to the public in his lifetime.

Posterity has judged “The Single Petal of a Rose” as one of Ellington’s finest pieces for solo piano, and is frequently played by classical pianists in transcription.

The news of the Queen’s death is wall-to-wall on every channel. A friend from England wrote me this morning, saying, “We have mentally checked out as of yesterday…many events are are being postponed….It’s staggering.”

J.K. Rowling’s stories concerning fantasy and royal bloodline have given untold pleasure to untold millions. In a viral tweet yesterday, the author explained:

Some may find the outpouring of British shock and grief at this moment quaint or odd, but millions felt affection and respect for the woman who uncomplainingly filled her constitutional role for seventy years…Most British people have never known another monarch, so she’s been a thread winding through all our lives. She did her duty by the country right up until her dying hours, and became an enduring, positive symbol of Britain all over the world. She’s earned her rest. #TheQueen

Naturally, anyone with any depth at all knows that a phrase like “The English Monarchy” implies not just stately glamor, but tremendous violence and sadness as well. This is why I like having Rowling weigh in on the royal death. Humans seem to need heroic fairytales almost as much as they need oxygen, whether it is Harry Potter or Queen Elizabeth II.

In A Question of Upbringing, Anthony Powell writes, “There is always something solemn about change, even when accepted.”


Tonight is the beginning of the Harvest Moon. In Brooklyn last night, the gibbous was already stunning.

One of my first and most beloved cassettes was an anthology of early Count Basie. Most of the tape featured his famous big band, except for a lone piano feature, “Shine on Harvest Moon,” where the Count lazily spins variations over Freddie Green, Walter Page, and Jo Jones. There aren’t so many records of Basie playing standards from this era, but they are definitely an important puzzle piece, for Basie’s stark and open voicings on a Tin Pan Alley ditty absolutely foreshadow Thelonious Monk.

According to Wikipedia, the song debuted at the Ziegfeld Follies in 1908, and the composer attribution is in question. I never heard a vocal version, and am rather scandalized by the forthright request of natural light for evening lovemaking:

Oh, Shine on, shine on, harvest moon
Up in the sky;
I ain’t had no lovin’
Since April, January, June or July.
Snow time, ain’t no time to stay
Outdoors and spoon;
So shine on, shine on, harvest moon,
For me and my gal.