Remembering Kenny Wheeler, jazz trumpeter and composer

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 January, 2015, 10:32pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 January, 2015, 11:20am

One of the losses most keenly felt by jazz last year was that of composer, trumpeter and flugelhorn player Kenny Wheeler, who died in September aged 84.

In December 2013, Wheeler recorded a final album for the ECM label, Songs for Quintet. It was released on January 14, which would have marked his 85th birthday.

The Canadian-born Wheeler moved to Britain in 1952 and spent the rest of the decade establishing himself as a working jazz musician in London. His career reached a turning point when he joined the John Dankworth Orchestra in 1959, and having already made a name as an instrumentalist he began to study composition seriously.

Windmill Tilter, Wheeler's first extended work and based on the Don Quixote story, was recorded with the Dankworth Orchestra in 1968, and he continued to write for small and large ensembles while diversifying into free improvisation. He once said that everything he did had "a touch of melancholy and a touch of chaos to it", adding "I write sad songs and then I get the musicians to destroy them".

In practice that meant musicians who played Wheeler compositions under his leadership enjoyed the same freedom of expression he liked to exercise when playing other composers' music.

As a trumpeter and flugelhorn player, he was prized by many bandleaders in addition to Dankworth - among them Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott, Alan Skidmore, John Surman, Anthony Braxton and Tony Oxley. At home in a wide range of musical contexts, his playing on both types of horn was known for its warmth and lyricism, but also for its advanced harmonic thinking and occasional quirky unpredictability.

All those qualities made him a natural fit at Manfred Eicher's ECM label, founded in 1969, for which he began recording in 1975 as a leader and subsequently as a collaborator. He was also a member of the trio Azimuth, with pianist John Taylor and singer Norma Winstone, and when in Hong Kong in 1989 he contributed as a guest to the El Jammo album, made by Ric Halstead and Dave Packer's Kindred Spirits band featuring Eugene Pao and Rudi Balbuena.

Wheeler's strengths as a composer and instrumentalist - confining himself for his final sessions to flugelhorn - are well represented on his last album Songs for Quintet, on which he is joined by Stan Sulzmann on tenor saxophone, John Parricelli on guitar, Chris Laurence on double bass and Martin France on drums.

Signing to ECM has also given saxophonist Chris Potter the opportunity to spread his wings as a composer. In recent years no saxophonist since Michael Brecker - Potter has been described as his successor - has been so highly and widely praised by those best able to judge, among them Wheeler, who taught him composition.

"When he called me for a private lesson, I had no idea how he played," Wheeler said. "We started with a bebop tune but he went further out on the second thing we played, and on the third tune he was playing in the language of my contemporaries, guys who grew up following all of Miles Davis' bands and aspiring to the kind of spiritual strivings that defined John Coltrane's music. By the fourth tune, I wanted to take a lesson from Chris."

Potter, who began making a name for himself in trumpeter Red Rodney's band, has played with Pat Metheny, Paul Motian, Dave Holland, Steely Dan, Jim Hall, Joe Lovano and many more. He made his ECM debut in 2013 with The Sirens, and has just released his second album for the label, Imaginary Cities, credited to Chris Potter Underground Orchestra.

The album's centre is a four-part suite which provides the title, and is Potter's most ambitious work as a composer to date. Blending jazz and world music influences, the songs maintain a fine balance between the orchestrated and improvised elements, and Potter as a soloist is at the top of his form.

It's only January, but I'm fairly sure this will be one of the most important jazz albums of the year, and a likely Grammy nomination.

Take Three

Three landmark albums by Kenny Wheeler.

  • Gnu High (1975, ECM): Wheeler's acclaimed ECM debut convened an all star quartet, comprising Keith Jarrett on piano, Jack DeJohnette on drums and Dave Holland on bass, while Wheeler sticks to flugelhorn.
  • Deer Wan (1977, ECM): his own harshest critic, Wheeler once said: "I don't have any solos of my own that I like completely, only those that are not as bad as others. Perhaps the solos on Deer Wan I can live with." From a modest man there could hardly be higher self-praise.
  • Music for Large & Small Ensembles (1990, ECM): just what the title says, and a fine example of how skilfully Wheeler scored for both. Musicians include singer Norma Winstone, saxophonist Evan Parker, guitarist John Abercrombie and bassist Dave Holland.