Wheeler toots classical

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 May, 2008, 12:00am

According to the liner notes of Other People, one of two new releases on the CamJazz label featuring Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, 'this album marks the veteran musician's first venture into recording with a string ensemble'.

Not so. There has been at least one other, and it was recorded in Hong Kong. It was with some surprise that I noted, on dusting off my copy of El Jammo - a Kindred Spirits production featuring Wheeler in the company of Dave Packer, Ric Halstead, Eugene Pao, Johnny Abraham and Rudi Balbuena - that it was released nearly 20 years ago.

That album was intended to give composers Packer, Halstead and Pao the opportunity to work with strings and voices, and featured the 12-piece Encora String Ensemble. Wheeler was passing through Hong Kong and guested on two Packer compositions and Halstead and Pao's title track. The CD can still be found in some local record stores. It is worth seeking out.

Other People was made with the Hugo Wolf String Quartet and Wheeler's long-time collaborator and partner in the Azimuth trio, keyboardist John Taylor, guests on piano. Completed by vocalist Norma Winstone, Azimuth tends to be described as performing 'chamber jazz' and the music here has much more to do with the classical chamber music tradition than with the free blowing jazz with which Wheeler, now 78, is also associated.

Although a Canadian by birth, Wheeler has lived and worked in Britain since 1952. During the 1960s he played for several years with John Dankworth's band and in various other sideman situations, not recording his first album as a leader until 1969. He made a number of critically well-received albums for Manfred Eicher's ECM label from the 70s through to the mid-90s, but has since moved from label to label on various projects.

In just under 50 minutes Other People offers eight original compositions and a number of strong Wheeler solos featuring his trademark leaps from low to squealingly high notes. Critics have said that his sound is not what it was, but for a man of his age he can still sound forceful, and as an instrumentalist remains very recognisably himself.

The emphasis here, though, is on composition rather than improvisation, and those who expect jazz to swing will find little to delight them. With neither bass nor drums, these pieces sound much like modern classical music with an element of improvisation. It has grown on me with repeated plays, but has nothing like the immediate appeal of As Never Before, which finds Wheeler in the emphatically swinging company of bassist Marc Johnson, drummer Joey Baron, and pianist Enrico Pieranunzi who leads the band and composed seven of the nine tunes.

Strongly influenced by Bill Evans, Pieranunzi has made a point of working in a trio format with former Evans associates, including drummer Paul Motian. Johnson was Evans' last bassist.

This is a fine swinging trio playing the kind of melancholic minor key jazz to which Wheeler's sound, particularly on flugelhorn or muted trumpet, is so admirably suited. He appears on all nine tracks, making this effectively a quartet album, and one tune, Song for Kenny, was clearly composed for him. Improheart and Impromind are, as the names imply, group improvisations, and the compositions are accordingly credited to all four participants.

'Kenny and I met for the first time in 1997 on a concert stage - a dream come true,' recalls Pieranunzi. 'Now with this CD, a dream within a dream becomes reality.'

The exercise would be worth repeating, and it's puzzling that the music was left to sit on the shelf for more than three years. The sessions took place in November and December 2004. Possibly the release that year of Fellini Jazz, a Pieranunzi tribute to Federico Fellini which also featured Wheeler but in the company of Motian, bassist Charlie Haden and saxophonist Chris Potter, led CamJazz to defer.

Wheeler makes his mark but some of the most powerful playing is to be heard when Pieranunzi solos with the powerfully sympathetic support of Baron and Johnson. Their trio rapport has been developed to a high level.

Wheeler's compositions on Other People are fine but jazz fans might prefer As Never Before.