Kenny Wheeler: Songs for Quintet


When it came to music, Kenny Wheeler was everywhere and fit in anywhere. Players that crossed the spectrum, from Tubby Hayes to Derek Bailey, knew him as a singular trumpet voice of seldom-equaled musicality. Settling in London in 1952 after leaving his native Toronto, he became a go-to sideman and an inspiring leader for more than sixty years.

Before emerging as a leading composer and bandleader, Wheeler cut his teeth accompanying British jazz mainstays such as John Dankworth and Ronnie Scott in the 1950s and 1960s. I first heard him with Anthony Braxton, whom he worked with from 1971 until 1976. He was a standout presence on Bill Bruford’s 1978 Feels So Good and David Sylvian’s 1984 album Brilliant Trees. As leader, he snared Keith Jarrett as a sideman on his 1975 ECM debut GNU High, and scored another career highlight playing with Bill Frisell on 1997’s Angel Song.

His final recording, Songs For Quintet (ECM), was first released in Europe on January 12th, 2015, on what would have been his 85th birthday. The band, consisting of Kenny Wheeler (flugelhorn), Stan Sulzmann (tenor saxophone), John Parricelli (guitar), Chris Laurence (bass) and Martin France (drums) performed nine Wheeler compositions, six newly recorded and three recorded previously.

The first thing this disc reveals is a tentative yet poignant quality to Kenny’s flugelhorn playing. The contrast between his airy tone and the sharper, more precise tenor saxophone of Stan Sulzmann creates an intergenerational dialogue unlike anything I have heard lately. You can liken it to an older, more experienced voice leading the way for a knowing but less experienced acolyte. The attentive, appreciative listener will find this captivating upon repeated plays. This, together with the brilliant yet sensitive rhythm section, creates an album all the more engaging with each and every spin.

Album highlights include “Cantor No. 1,” which opens with a bass solo morphing into a bass line that sounds positively heroic after the haunting music of the preceding three tracks. “Sly Eyes” is a march reminiscent of “Sketches In Spain” but with a small group flavor. The more experimental “1076” follows, to remind you that a bit of freedom can lead to a burst of illumination. Last up on this list, “Pretty Liddle Waltz,” provides the best illustration of the Wheeler-Sulzmann harmonious contrast as well as a great melody to savor along with the disc and the late leader who made it, Kenny Wheeler.

Kenny Wheeler Quintet - The Widow In The Window