Three for Wheeler:
Gnu High. Deer Wan. Double, Double You. Flutter By, Butterfly. Mind-blowing writing and playing I heard through my mom’s stereo in Cedar, BC, after a healthy day of record shopping in the big city of Vancouver. Then came Music for Large and Small Ensembles and The Widow in the Window, which my Berklee pals and I obsessed over. Later, Angel Song and A Long Time Ago, CDs I bought during my New York years.
Kenny wrote songs filled with memorable, singable melodies, heartfully designed chord progressions, and forms structured to send any adequately equipped improviser in a number of enriched directions. Take these tunes, add Kenny and his perfectly poised sidemen to the mix, and we get to hear magic, over and over… sometimes dark, sometimes deep, but never lacking in thoughtful musical direction or heart-wrenching beauty.
During my formative trumpet years in the 1980’s on Vancouver Island, I found my ear and soul constantly gravitating towards Kenny’s music. At the same time, I was deeply entrenched in the sounds of Booker Little, Miles, Clark Terry, Freddie, Art Farmer (the list goes on…). Without a doubt, the scenery around me led me to a kind of understanding of the ECM sound that Kenny was such a big part of, and as I slowly honed my trumpet craft, I found myself searching for a way to produce his incredible, wide-leaping melodic ideas. Combined with the influence of some of the more linear, groove-oriented players I was studying at the time, I guess I might have started on a long road of trumpet crazy, embracing many techniques at once.
It seems clear that Kenny’s melodic, harmonic and rhythmic language came from many sources — most genuinely, his own searching. He was not one to try to recycle the ideas of others. He spent hours looking for a space in which to start channelling what he was living out that day. I feel extremely fortunate to have spent that sacred time with him at the Banff Jazz Workshop in 1990 — it was the year that Dave Holland and Steve Coleman bailed at the last minute, rendering camp to more of a retreat than a structured day-to-day teaching situation. Kenny would show up a few times a week to our very small trumpet studio, and at 10 AM, would already have a new three- or four-part trumpet piece for us to play that he had composed earlier that morning. I asked him about his process and it was not a simple one. Sometimes he hated what he wrote and would go back to his Bach chorales, counterpoint exercises… whatever it took to break through the wall of mediocrity that he felt he was hitting.
I didn’t hear Kenny fronting his own bands until I moved to Vienna a year and a bit after Banff. I was, of course, blown away. On one gig he was intensely pissed off at the mic and monitor sound. He actually kicked the mic and stand off the stage! It was a deep moment, one which the Austrian sound guy probably did not appreciate! It reminded me of some of the lessons I took away from our studio time in Banff, and I actually found myself in total understanding of the mic anger moment. Kenny played the trumpet from a very rich sonic space, giving his ear the freedom to lead his trumpet to play the ideas that we get to hear. He told me this himself: “I don’t play as well when the sound is uncomfortable.” Kenny was listening intently to everything, so if the EQ was shit, that was in the listening equation. For sure, this conversation led me to think more seriously about my knowledge of the mix and the eventual schlepping of my own mic to every gig.
As far as Kenny’s technique goes, what can be said? He was a bad motherfucker on the trumpet and flugelhorn. He would whisper intensely seductive melodies in one moment, then reach for the stars with the most expansive and ethereal ideas, bordering on screaming but never crossing the line into trumpet ego-land.
I know that Booker Little was an influence on him — especially the wide leaps and angular lines — but I really think that his trumpet style evolved out of his ability to hear lick-free ideas, ones that only a composer of his depth could invent in the moment, while also playing his instrument really well. Let that be an inspiration to find one’s own voice!
This is not to detract from his ability to execute anything that came across his music stand. Another mind-blowing Banff moment was when Kenny played lead in the big band. Everything was there: no missed notes, killer time, great sound and total control of the horn.
I hear Kenny’s influence on younger players in Canada, in Europe, and from the highly educated Aussies and Kiwis. A small amount of Kenny has made it to the US but not so much, mostly due to a narrower perspective in the education system, and the perception that a jazz trumpet player has to swing hard to be considered valid.Kenny did not consider himself to be a swinging trumpet player and would often comment on how he felt he really wasn’t able to play time, a comment I refuse to accept. Kenny knew music too well. He and loved and respected every moment too much to just flail around pointlessly.
I always felt honored (and a bit hip) to be the only one who brought Kenny tunes to the many sessions I did in my early New York jam days. I remember Mark Turner loving those songs, and also how awed and humbled Kenny was when I ran into him some time afterwards and told him. “Oh wow, Mark is one of my favorite players!” said Ken in his charming, soft-spoken way.
His wild brushstrokes over changes were filled with a profound relationship to everything around him, including the entire rhythm section. It is this deep level of listening, combined with the freedom in his playing, that ripped me a new perspective, and continues to inspire me to dig as deep as possible into every song I get to explore.
Thank you Kenny Wheeler, for taking the bar and throwing it to the stars, and beyond.
Three for Wheeler: