Kenny Wheeler – Songs For Quintet (2015)

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This past January 14th was Kenny Wheeler’s 85th birthday, the first one Wheeler himself was not around to celebrate. The famed flugelhorn player, composer and arranger sadly died this past September 18 after several months of failing health. His music, of course, lives on, and thankfully Wheeler had enough left in him for one more album right before he went sliding toward death’s door.

Songs For Quintet (February 3, 2015 from ECM Records) is a posthumous release that Wheeler made with respected, longtime vets of the London jazz scene: Stan Sulzmann (tenor sax), John Parricelli (guitar), Chris Laurence (double bass) and Martin France (drums). His affinity with these local cats from the Canadian’s adopted British environs assured he was going to get the support he required for a set of mostly newer Wheeler tunes, but Wheeler to the end remained firmly in control of the artistic direction of this album.

That’s plain from listening to Songs For Quintet in close proximity to Wheeler’s first album, Gnu High (1975), which began a long association with ECM that helped to define the label during it’s ‘classic’ period and maintain its lofty status well into the 21st century. His melodic but wide open and wandering compositions are the linchpins of both, and a flugelhorn that’s uncommonly adventurous and expressive. “Jigsaw” is but one contemporary instance where there’s a nuance on Wheeler’s flugelhorn you still don’t hear from anyone else on the instrument, as it speaks to its audience in a personal manner. What he might have lost with his fastball had by the end of his career was amply compensated by the delicate twisting and bending of notes that gave off a rare human warmth and sincerity always present but has now become pronounced. That’s why Wheeler loves to write and play melancholy songs like “The Long Waiting;” he extracts the precise sentiment by wavering his notes just so. Sulzmann’s own solo that follows is pure in its tone and delicacy.

For Songs, Wheeler is effectively replacing the expected piano with Parricelli’s guitar, hearkening back to Wheeler’s occasional alliances with fellow ECM-mate John Abercrombie, and it’s easy to hear Parricelli assuming Abercrombie’s role on “Seventy-Six” as he adds tonal pastels that fill in some of the pieces to Wheeler’s mysterious melodies.

The loose cohesion that’s a hallmark of Wheeler small combo recordings going back to Gnu High is found on every track. It’s what gives “Jigsaw” an airy groove and suggests bossa nova on “Nonetheless” without fully committing to it. Laurence’s a capella bass figure frames “Canter No. 1,” a figure later revealed to be based on Wheeler’s graceful theme that has the feel of a vintage mid-70s ECM folk-jazz tone poem. Unexpectedly, the tempo races off in a bop direction as Sulzmann takes his solo turn and the saxophonist adjusts beautifully.

Wheeler revisits a couple of old tunes, too, such as “The Long Waiting” which was originally cast in a large band setting, and his Azimuth trio tune “Old Time,” breathing fresh new life into these songs. Wheeler’s long-held fondness for out-jazz was borne out early in his career with in stints with John Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Tony Oxley’s sextet and Anthony Braxton. “1076” is a brief taste of his free side that remained very much intact but still very tonal.

A coda fit for the most important figure of the flugelhorn for perhaps the whole history of jazz, Songs For Quintet underscores the continuity of Wheeler’s work as a leader that began thirty-nine years earlier. From beginning to end, an unassuming adventurous spirit breathed through that big horn, and he did nothing for his final encore that will make us miss him any less.

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