Three for Wheeler:
It was January 1993 and my high school band director, Bob Rebagliati, had escorted us to The Glass Slipper, at the time Vancouver’s main jazz venue, a basement space on East 11th downstairs from a Royal Canadian Legion Hall. (The club is long gone.) We were there to hear a Canadian jazz group coming through town on their national tour. I had never heard of any of the musicians on the bill, but we’d been assured that the Canadian-born, UK-based “special guest” playing with them was someone of real significance — A Big Deal.
I may have carried some reflexive teenage skepticism with me into the venue. If I did, it evaporated quickly. Led by pianist Jeff Johnston, these guys (Martin Ricket, guitar; Jim Vivian, bass; Mike Billard, drums) were a real band, four tight-knit friends who’d come up making music together in Newfoundland. They’d been out on the road, hitting every night, supporting their new record and playing the hell out of Jeff’s very hip originals. I was already in the tank for this group even before their guest, an unassuming little man in his early sixties, shuffled to the stage. But as soon as he started to play… oh my god, that sound! The dark, focused, penetrating tone, those serpentine lines and angular leaps and keening high-register wails, improbably woven into beautiful endless melody. I’d never heard anything remotely like that. I played just enough trumpet in high school to appreciate how bugfuck insane this dude’s chops were, but that’s not what grabbed me. All that fearsome facility was in the service of a singular voice, a voice that — in Jekyll-and-Hyde contrast to the way he carried himself — was unbelievably powerful and direct.
So yeah, it’s safe to say this show had an impact. After high school, I left Vancouver for Montreal, where I had the great privilege of studying piano with Jeff Johnston at McGill. Here, it was quickly made clear that there were two Kenny Wheeler records everyone absolutely needed to have. The first was Gnu High, the trailblazing 1975 ECM date reuniting the Keith Jarrett-Dave Holland-Jack DeJohnette rhythm section for the first — and last — time, post-Miles. Kenny’s breakthrough record (at age 45!), it instantly established the new high-water mark for conversational open-feel playing, post-modal harmony, and extended small-group composition. The session was notoriously acrimonious, with Keith feeling miffed at having been press-ganged into a supporting role by his label’s honcho, and Kenny feeling like he’d been relegated to sideman status on his own record. But the results are miraculous. Gnu High still sounds phenomenally prescient and fresh.
The other obligatory album was 1990’s Music for Large and Small Ensembles. You must understand, as a rule, college-age jazz students hate big band. Sure, there are always a few keeners swimming against the tide, but I think it’s safe to say a decisive majority of my fellow McGill-ites regarded playing in large ensembles as a chore to be dispatched with a minimum of effort and emotional investment. They certainly were not about to listen to a big band record on their own time!
Music for Large and Small Ensembles was the exception. I guess it must have felt to everyone like Kenny Wheeler music and not big band music… though of course it is big band music, brilliantly constructed, a milestone of large ensemble jazz. Kenny spent a lifetime writing one indelibly gorgeous melody after another, but the themes threaded throughout the 50-minute, 8-movement work The Suite Time Suite are some of his very finest: “For H.,” “For Jan,” “Consolation,” and the amazing chorale which both begins and ends the work. [More on that here.] The double album also includes three self-contained large ensemble works, all of them stone classics —“Gentle Piece,” “Sophie,” and “Sea Lady” (which makes brilliant use of Evan Parker’s speaking-in-tongues soprano playing), plus a handful of freely improvised duets and trios, and a multifaceted quintet take on the Dietz-Schwartz standard “By Myself.”
Kenny had been a prolific big band composer for many years prior to the release of Music for Large and Small Ensembles. Throughout the seventies, he would write and premiere new material for his band to perform on the BBC every year — you can see footage from one of these sessions in this 1977 TV documentary. And the record that should have been his breakthrough release was also a big band album: 1968’s Windmill Tilter. It’s got a great origin story, too: the project came about because Kenny had had an impacted wisdom tooth extracted and the surgery left him unable to play for several months. Upon learning of this, British bandleader John Dankworth suggested that his old pal Kenny take advantage of the downtime to write an extended piece for his orchestra.
There is probably no more quixotic undertaking than writing music for large jazz ensemble, so a big band tone poem based on episodes and characters from Don Quixote is a natural pairing of form and subject. (With his characteristic dry wit, Kenny said he was attracted to the idea because of his affinity for losers.) But this is a record most people never had the opportunity to hear until quite recently: the master tapes were thought lost, and the original vinyl release was an ultra-rare collectible. Finally, in 2010, the album was reissued and it is a revelation: Kenny’s sound, conception, and compositional voice are all fully-formed even at this early date. You can hear the lineage of his instrumental and compositional influences — Booker Little, Art Farmer, Gil Evans, Bill Russo, Paul Hindemith — but it all sounds like classic Kenny Wheeler: sophisticated post-modal sonorities, deceptive harmonic progressions, judiciously deployed mixed meters, dark and full ensemble voicings, all bound together with supreme focus and craft. (“Sancho,” particularly, is a brilliantly unified bit of writing.) And it’s all animated by Kenny’s supreme melodic gift, both in the written music and in his own freewheeling improvisations.
The rhythm section on this date includes Dave Holland and John McLaughlin, prior to their being whisked away by Miles. In fact, Holland, then all of 21 years old, was on the record date at Kenny’s suggestion, Dankworth’s regular bassist having suffered a hand injury. Dave Holland would go on to be one of Kenny’s most significant collaborators, playing on all but one of his ECM releases. Holland returned the favor by bringing Kenny into his influential mid-1980’s groups. Another key Wheeler associate on Windmill Tilter is pianist John Taylor, who played and recorded with Kenny extensively throughout his career, and is an important artist in his own right.
A few months after recording Windmill Tilter, Kenny participated in two curious recordings made in London by American jazz icons: Philly Joe Jones’ Mo’ Joe and Paul Gonsalves’ Humming Bird. Kenny was his own harshest critic and never considered himself much of a bebop player — he felt could never seem to get far enough on top of the time. And, as Ingrid Jensen says in her post, probably the biggest reason why Kenny isn’t as well-known in the US as he is elsewhere is the (unfair) perception that he doesn’t really swing. It’s true that Kenny’s idiosyncratic approach, full of in-the-moment risk-taking and elliptical, counterintuitive lines and phrasing, is… well, somewhat at odds with the way one might be expected to navigate common-practice jazz tunes. So it’s really interesting to hear him at this relatively early stage, before anyone outside of London jazz circles had any idea who he was, playing standards and bop anthems alongside these two heavyweights of swinging time.
To be clear, these records are curiosities, mainly of historical interest. Even hardcore Kenny Wheeler fans tend to be unaware of these sessions — I only recently heard them myself. In both cases, the visiting American jazz star is supported by musicians from the late sixties London scene, who acquit themselves with let’s say varying degrees of success. Mo’ Joe is probably the most satisfying album overall — Philly Joe is in fine form throughout, and solos on every tune. Kenny sounds most secure and most like himself on Tadd Dameron’s “Lady Bird,” and it’s thrilling to hear him apply his language and ideas to sophisticated high bebop. Humming Bird is a more uneven affair — the British drummer, the improbably-named “Benny Goodman,” is no Philly Joe, to put it charitably, and Gonsalves himself is wildly inconsistent on his own date — but the title track, a harmonically rich bossa, has a real bravura turn from Kenny, one of his most outstanding early solos. (You can practically hear Gonsalves arch an eyebrow….)
A later, more mature, more consistently satisfying example of Kenny playing standards and bop is Pepper Adams’ Conjuration, recorded live at Fat Tuesday’s in the summer of 1983. The band is Pepper, Kenny, Hank Jones, Clint Houston, and Louis Hayes. Clearly KW is the odd man out here! But he digs in hard on the heads, even bringing a hint of Pepper’s longtime associate Thad Jones into his sound. His soloing on tunes like “Alone Together” and Thad’s “Quittin’ Time” is incredibly inventive, occasionally surreal, and, if not classically swanging, always completely engaged with the beat. Pepper also does Kenny the honor of including one of his tunes in the set, “Old Ballad.” Unsurprisingly, Kenny shines brightest when given the chance to unleash on his own material, earning a shouted “bravo!” from someone in the audience.
But really, if anyone had any lingering doubts about Kenny’s command of rhythm, these should be easily dispelled by even a cursory listen to the three records he recorded with Dave Holland’s band between 1983 and 1987: Jumpin’ In, Seeds of Time, and The Razor’s Edge. These albums are all heavily influenced by the advanced rhythmic and conceptual ideas being developed by the group’s alto saxophonist, a then little-known Steve Coleman. Who are the other trumpet players who, in the mid-eighties, could hang with Steve Coleman tunes like “The Dragon and the Samurai,” “Uhren,” and “Vortex”? It’s a short list. Coleman evidently thought highly enough of Kenny to invite him aboard for his 1991 album Rhythm in Mind, a date which essentially takes Holland’s band with Coleman, Wheeler, and “Smitty” Smith and augments it with a trio of elder statesmen: Von Freeman, Ed Blackwell, and Tommy Flanagan.
Kenny is also among the few musicians of his generation — remember, he was born in 1930, the same year as Sonny Rollins — to fully embrace free improvisation and the modernist avant-garde. When the British improv scene began to establish itself in the late 1960’s, Kenny very quickly went all in. He joined John Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Alex von Schlippenbach’s Globe Unity Orchestra, and Tony Oxley’s quintet with Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, and Jeff Clyne. In 1969, that group made a record which would become a classic of the British avant-garde, The Baptised Traveller. It must have seemed out of character for someone with Kenny’s love of pretty melodies and meticulously structured compositions to take up this wild, thorny music, but he’s said he found it liberating to be able to put aside his preconceptions (and, I suspect, his perpetual self-doubt) and just let rip. With his daredevil agility, sonic flexibility, and searching spirit, he fit right in. For their part, Oxley and company felt like they’d scored a real coup by luring a top mainstream jazz player over to the “other side”!
At some point, Anthony Braxton must have gotten wind of this mild-mannered British trumpet player who could read flyshit and tear it up like a beast, and in 1971 invited Kenny to join his quartet with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul. Kenny continued to play in various Braxton groups throughout the seventies, including my personal favorite, Creative Music Orchestra 1976 — a great example of Kenny throwing down in the postmodernist Braxtonian vein. Kenny also appears on Wadada Leo Smith’s first ECM outing, Divine Love — Wadada and Kenny are joined by Lester Bowie on “Tastalun,” a piece for three unaccompanied, Harmon-muted trumpets.
Meanwhile, the success of Gnu High allowed Kenny to establish a career-long association with ECM Records. He recorded his final date as a leader for the label in late 2013, a session which should see a posthumous release sometime next year. I consider all of Kenny’s ECM dates essential listening, but if I had to suggest one to pick up after the obvious must-haves Gnu High and Music for Small and Large Ensembles, I might steer you towards 1984’s Double, Double You, featuring Michael Brecker, John Taylor, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette. A tribute to Kenny’s trombonist father, Wilf Wheeler, the record opens with the slash-and-burn intensity of “Foxy Trot,” leaving you exhaustedly susceptible to the searching Wheeler-Taylor duo “Ma Bel,” the beguiling counterpoint of “W.W.,” and the protean suite “Three for D’reen/Blue for Lou/Mark Time.”
Angel Song (1997) with Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell, and Holland, is also beloved by many. The highlight is “Kind Folk,” a small-group version of “For H.” from Small and Large Ensembles, metrically shifted into 3/4 time. It’s a gorgeous record, but Lee’s tart sound and Frisell’s folksy twang keep this introspective drummer-less session from getting too pretty. Kenny forgoes drums on many of his later records (a bit more often than I would have liked, honestly), but one album in this vein that stands out is One of Many, recorded 2006 but not released until 2011, an underrated session that sees Wheeler and Taylor joined by Steve Swallow. The aggressiveness of Swallow’s plucked electric attack seems to draw Kenny out — it’s still a hushed and contemplative affair, but there’s also a welcome undercurrent of propulsive urgency. These moody, spacious late-period records harken back somewhat to Azimuth, a trio formed by John Taylor in 1977 with Wheeler and vocalist Norma Winstone. The group’s airy minimalism, hypnotic electronic effects, multi-tracked flourishes, and Winstone’s hauntingly ethereal, often wordless vocals, have been influential both inside and outside of jazz circles.
My own mentor, Bob Brookmeyer, loved Kenny Wheeler, both as a composer and as an instrumentalist. He would invariably compare all current trumpet players to Kenny — needless to say, no one ever measured up. In the fall of 2002, Bob and Kenny recorded together in Boston with Frank Carlberg, Jeremy Allen, and John Hollenbeck, and I’m still kicking myself that I couldn’t bring myself to ask Bob if he’d permit me to be a fly on the wall during the recording. The resultant album, Island, comes with a DVD documenting the process, and some clips from this are online: here is Kenny talking about the album closer, “Strange One.” Kenny’s customary self-deprecation is in full effect, but note the awe in Brookmeyer’s voice when he talks about how “discouraging” it is for him to listen to Kenny’s ability to negotiate complex chromatic harmony without apparent effort.
Considering Kenny is one of the most significant big band composers of the past fifty years, with a huge body of work, he has frustratingly few large ensemble recordings to his name. His sophomore release, 1973’s Song For Someone (featuring Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Tony Oxley, John Taylor, and Norma Winstone, among others) was, like Windmill Tilter, out of print for decades. It was recently reissued on CD but you’ll have to import it from the UK. He also contributed an original (“Free Wheeler”) and a couple of pop arrangements (including James Taylor’s “Country Road” — no, seriously!) to an album by fellow Canuck and brother-in-brass Maynard Ferguson, M.F. Horn Two. Unfortunately, none of the annual big band projects Kenny did for the BBC during the seventies have been released. In fact, apart from a 1987 record with the Guildhall School of Music’s big band, and a chart he contributed to the Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra’s 1989 ECM debut, there is basically no Kenny Wheeler big band music on record from Song For Someone all the way up until the release of Music For Large and Small Ensembles in 1990. After that, Kenny begins to guest with some frequency with other big bands: he made three albums with Canada’s Maritime Jazz Orchestra (Who Are You, Siren’s Song, and Now and Now Again) and recorded with various continental ensembles: the European Music Orchestra, the Upper Austrian Jazz Orchestra, the UMO Jazz Orchestra, and a disc of Kenny-arranged standards with the Colors Jazz Orchestra.
But it wasn’t until 2012’s (appropriately titled) The Long Waiting that we finally got the first big band record to appear under Kenny’s name since Large and Small Ensembles. The Long Waiting is a vital document of Kenny’s late-career compositional output. (There is also a companion album, Six For Six, which has small-group interpretations of many of the same tunes.) Several musicians from Large and Small Ensembles return for The Long Waiting, including tenor saxophonist Stan Sulzmann and the great lead trumpet player Derek Watkins, who goes all the way back to Windmill Tilter. It makes a real difference when Kenny’s music is performed by players from his orbit, so for a composer of his gifts to have led just four big band releases over 44 years is a bit heartbreaking. Like I said: a quixotic undertaking.
But still: what a career! The range of music he was involved in and the level of artistry he brought to all of it is staggering. When he left Canada for the UK, he was just 22 years old, but Kenny remains almost universally beloved by Canadian jazz musicians, especially those who had the opportunity to learn from him at the Banff Jazz Workshop, as I did in the summer of 1998. I remember the trumpet player in our combo was having difficulty dealing with a Wheeler tune with a complex harmonic progression, and asked Kenny for advice on negotiating the altered scale. He looked at the floor and said, sheepishly, “The altered scale is the only thing I play.” Then he added, sotto voce, “… and I only really know six of them.” When you saw it close-up like this, it was obvious there was nothing false or affected about Kenny’s chronic self-effacement, though it seemed like it might have been his way of coping with what would otherwise be crippling self-doubt. He genuinely did not want to think of himself as A Big Deal.
But look, there is no getting around it: Kenny Wheeler was A Big Deal. I don’t think there’s any question that he belongs in the pantheon of greats, both as a player and as a composer. But what I find most inspiring about Kenny is the way he embodied a wide-open, all-embracing approach to making music. At a time when there was a fierce and highly partisan rift between the improv scene and the mainstream jazz world, Kenny showed everyone how to bridge the divide. He has said that when he was playing straight-ahead jazz he would try to play free, and when he was playing free he would try to play melodically — he considered them complimentary. His ability to draw from both is essential to his sound. If today that view seems to have acquired a bit more currency, it’s in part because Kenny Wheeler, and musicians inspired by him, helped to make it so.
Three for Wheeler: