Happy 80th Birthday Kenny Wheeler

Thursday 14th January was trumpeter Kenny Wheeler’s 80th birthday. John Fordham in the Grauniad offers a review of the Birthday Concert that was held this week at the Royal Academy of Music in London.


Image: Juan Carlos Hernandez

It sounds like it was a predictably wonderful evening – with a monster band assembled to pay tribute to this most modest of master musicians: including Dave Holland, Evan Parker, John Taylor, Stan Sulzmann and Norma Winstone… all players with long histories of fruitful collaboration with Wheeler.

To catch some of the atmosphere, try out these recordings of Kenny Wheeler with the Colours Jazz Orchestra, recorded in Verona, Italy in February 2006.

As far as I know, the Verona date has never been released commercially, but you can pick up the superb Nineteen Plus One (recorded with the same orchestra) if you like what you hear.

Happy Birthday K.W.!

(Edit: for those of you who don’t want to download, Yann sent me the link to Kenny Wheeler on Deezer)

Five Albums of 2008

2008 has been a year of rediscovering pop music.  It’s been about dancing around the kitchen to Dizzee Rascal’s Dance Wiv Me and The Ting Tings Great DJ (both perfectly respectable pieces of radio-friendly pop).  But beyond those well-crafted but disposable gems, some new music has grabbed me by the scruff of the neck.  Here are five albums from 2008 that I really, really like.

The Sea and Cake – Car Alarm I fell in love with this album on my first listen, and it’s become the soundtrack to my time in Birmingham.  I wrote my early impressions on the blog a couple of months ago, and it’s still a joy to hear such intricate musicianship in a “rock” context.  Car Alarm is best heard on an iPod walking down Bristol Road on a bright frosty morning – it’ll help you forget you’re going to a 9am Finance lecture.

Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend Another band of precocious middle-class white dudes making unusual music.   With improbably-titled songs like Oxford Comma and Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa, this material really should fall flat on its pretentious postmodern face. Instead, you find yourself singing along to lyrics like “I see a mansard roof through the trees” and sighing wistfully for that mysterious  chick  with the Benetton sweater in your Philosophy tutorial.  Hopefully Vampire Weekend never make another album, because this disc approaches an unlikely perfection.

Nicholas Ludford – Missa Benedicta & Antiennes Votives (Choir of New College, Oxford/Edward Higginbottom) Luminous and meticulous music from 500 years ago. Tudor composer Nicholas Ludford was almost forgotten until recent scholarly work revived his reputation, including some of the last sacred music to be composed before the English Reformation. This disc won the 2008 Gramaphone Award for Early Music.

Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes This is a late entry into the Top Five.   Their début album sounds like Pet Sounds peformed in Appalachia by a troupe of medieaval troubadours for a 1930s Smithsonian folkways archive projet. But actually they’re from Seattle and signed to Sub-Pop. You have to hear this band. Are Fleet Foxes the new Flaming Lips?


Kenny Wheeler – Other People Kenny Wheeler was born in the same year as Clint Eastwood (1930), and like Eastwood he is enjoying a hugely creative and powerful “late period”.  Every Kenny Wheeler album seems to visit the same idiosyncratic Wheelerian Universe, but each time he takes a different bunch of musical collaborators.  This time it’s the Hugo Wolf Quartett, offering textures that recall Ravel and Schumann, delivered at moments with urgency and passion.  If I’m half as inspired at the age of 78 as Kenny Wheeler is , I’ll consider myself very lucky, punk.

Dave Holland Quintet in Freiburg, 1986

On odd occasions some wicked jazz turns up on YouTube.  This is an excerpt from the DVD Dave Holland Quintet Live in Freiburg.  Recorded in Germany in 1986, it’s only recently been released.

What a monster band – Dave Holland (b); Smitty Smith (d); Robin Eubanks (tb); Steve Coleman (saxes); Kenny Wheeler (tpt/flh).  It’s a pretty free-sounding date, and set free from chordal constraints the players can go some pretty interesting places.

Anyone’s who’s read this blog for a while will know I’m a bit of a Kenny Wheeler freak. This clip proves he’s a great “free” player. On this tune (Steve Coleman’s Vortex), he’s playing cornet. Sweet.

What the Heck is Kenny Wheeler up to these days?

This is a question I’ve been asking recently, since I haven’t seen any gigs advertised around the UK (and I’d really like to hear Kenny Wheeler live, one day). Also, KW is 78 years old, and so we like to keep an eye on his health and wellbeing.

Kenny Wheeler

Kenny Wheeler in 2007. Photo by Andy Newcombe

The good news is that Kenny Wheeler has a new album out, called Other People, which you can get through emusic, Amazon or the other usual outlets.

Other People is an outing with a string quartet, and the first time KW has written for or recorded with strings. Despite the new sonic context, all the expected navigational marks in the “univers wheelerien” remain in place – inventive use of minor keys, a sense of melancholy and Wheeler’s plaintive and distinct trumpet voice. With less improvisation than most jazz dates, the emphasis is on composition and it’s all very, very good.

There’s not much Kenny Wheeler on Youtube, but the track below, “Aye Aye That’s Your Lot” is outstanding. Recorded in Taunton, England in 1991, KW’s playing alongside some great musicians including Tony Oxley (d), Stan Sulzmann (ts) and Gordon Beck (pn).

Groovy Baby: Mike Westbrook Again

The Mike Westbrook Concert Band – Original Peter
From Mike Westbrook’s Love Songs: Vocalion CDSML 8407 [Buy]

A few months ago I got all sweaty and excited about Mike Westbrook’s big band recordings, and even ranked Citadel/Room 315 among my personal faves of last year. So I’m slowly making my way through some of Westbrook’s large ensemble dates from the 1970s (ie. those that are available on reissue).

Love Songs

Love Songs was recorded in March and April 1970, and features a smaller group (11 players including Westbrook himself and Norma Winstone on vocals) than he used on many of his other recordings of the period. It’s an entirely approachable disc that leans far more towards soul-jazz and groove than one might expect for a British band from this time.

Original Peter was written by Westbrook as a musical accompaniment to an acrobat who went by the same name, “the greatest hand balancer in the world”. At live gigs by the Westbrook band, Original Peter would appear on stage and do acrobatic tricks during the performance. Groovy, baby. The extempore tenor saxophone solo on this version is by George Khan.

Hand Balancing

A hand-balancer (not Original Peter, though!)

One of the things that’s notable about this recording is that it’s an early example of Norma Winstone’s wordless vocal style, where she joins the frontline horns in the melody lines. This is a role she used on many later recordings, including Kenny Wheeler’s large ensemble work like Song for Someone (1973) and Music for Large and Small Ensembles (1990)

Non-Publishing Note

A week’s holiday beckons until the 28th of January. There will be no laptop where I’m going, so there won’t be any posts here for a little while. I’m sure the world will carry on perfectly well while I’m hiding, so take care and have fun!

Kenny Wheeler V: Quintets

Kenny Wheeler Quintet – Foxy Trot
From Double, Double You: ECM 1262 [Buy]

Kenny Wheeler and Bob Brookmeyer Quintet – Upstairs with Beatrice
From Island: Artists House AH0006 [Buy]

This will be the final post in this series on Kenny Wheeler. Thanks to everyone who has dropped by and especially to everyone who took the time to comment. Don’t worry, Mr Wheeler will return at a later date, without a doubt…

To bid a temporary farewell, some slightly more straightahead stuff, set off with some interesting compositions. On Foxy Trot, Michael Brecker adds his particular muscularity to a group featuring longtime Wheeler collaborators Dave Holland, John Taylor and Jack deJohnette. Recorded in New York, May 1983.

Upstairs with Beatrice is a Bob Brookmeyer composition. Bob (valve trombone) and Kenny are joined by East Coasters John Hollenbeck (d) Jeremy Allen (b) and Frank Carlberg (p) on the 2002 record Island – a disc worth getting just for the bonus DVD with interview material, deconstructions of Kenny’s and Bob’s solos and footage of the recording session.

Coming soon on etnobofin… some kiwi music for New Zealand Music Month.

Kenny Wheeler IV: Mediaevilsms

Kenny Wheeler Brass Ensemble – Going for Baroque
From A Long Time Ago: ECM 1691 [Buy]

Thierry Péala with Kenny Wheeler – 546
From Inner Traces – A Kenny Wheeler Songbook: naive Y266 102 [Buy]

When you track down the (very rare) interviews with Kenny Wheeler, one of the things you learn is that Mr Wheeler is very interested in early music – that is, the music of Western Europe of the middle ages and the Renaissance. And sometimes this interest manifests itself in his compositions.

Here are two examples – Going for Baroque is fairly self-explanatory, with contrapuntal horn lines eventually dissolving into a more familar “wheelerian” harmonies. 546 is a short composition for jazz ensemble and vocalists based on the form and harmonies of Elizabethan English choral music.

Kenny Wheeler III: Variations

Kenny Wheeler Quartet – Kind Folk
From Angel Song: ECM 1607 [Buy]

Kenny Wheeler Big Band – Part II – For H. Part III – For Jan
From Music for Large and Small Ensembles: ECM 1415/16 [Buy]

Thierry Péala – Of Smiles Remembered
From Inner Traces – A Kenny Wheeler Songbook: naive Y266 102 [Buy]

Three different interpretations of Kenny’s tune Kind Folk. The 1996 Angel Song version features the impossibly cool combination of Kenny with Lee Konitz (as), Bill Frisell (g) and Dave Holland (b).

The tune appeared six years earlier under the title “For H” – the second movement of The Sweet Time Suite, played by Kenny’s British big band on Music for Large and Small Ensembles.

Recorded in Pernes les Fontaines, in southeast France in January 2000, the vocal version by French singer Thierry Péala is backed by Steve Arguelles on drums and Bruno Angelini on piano.

Young Kenny

Kenny Wheeler II: Sideman

Jurgen Friedrich Quartet with Kenny Wheeler – Baghira
From Summerflood: CTI Records [Buy]

John Abercrombie Trio with Kenny Wheeler – Little Booker
From Open Land: ECM 1683 [Buy]

I’ve just spent another whole weekend in the studio, recording the band’s new album. Once again, it’s been a demanding (and sometimes frustrating) experience. I have incredible respect and awe for those professional musicians who can step into someone else’s band at short notice and make a meaningful contribution.

Here’s Kenny Wheeler working as a sideman, both recorded in 1998, in Germany for an American label, and the other recorded in New York for a German label!

Kenny Wheeler Quartet, Jazzclub Lustenau, Austria, May 2001

The German pianist Jurgen Friedrich’s quartet features Claudius Volk (s), Volker Heinze (b) and the young Irish drummer Darren Beckett.

Little Booker displays Wheeler playing in an unsual trumpet-organ quartet, with John Abercrombie (g), Dan Wall (organ) and Adam Nussbaum (d).

Kenny Wheeler I

Kenny Wheeler Quintet -By Myself
Kenny Wheeler Big Band – Part V – Know Where You Are
From Music for Large and Small Ensembles: ECM 1415/16 [Buy]

So here’s the start of a Kenny Wheeler series. I could easily say too much about Mr Wheeler, so I’ll try to say very little and let people just listen to the man’s music.

To kick off, here’s two tracks off his 1990 big band/small band double set Music for Large and Small Ensembles. Recorded in London and Oslo, musicians include Dave Holland (b), Peter Erskine (d), John Abercrombie (g) and John Taylor (p) – and that’s just the core quartet ! This one is for Taxi Driver and Molo.