Kenny Wheeler's career has been almost singularly defined by its unpredictability, but It Takes Two! may be the trumpeter's biggest surprise yet. No stranger to unorthodox combinations, a two-guitar/bass lineup allows Wheeler's compositions to head in some unexpected directions. The material bears the melancholy lyricism that's been an unmistakable signature of his career. But It Takes Two! also features two uncharacteristically abstract and angular free improvisations. It also possesses, at times, a hint of the gentle Mediterranean breeze that Wheeler and his group must have felt while recording in Udine, Italy.
Wheeler has worked extensively with both John Abercrombie and John Parricelli, but this is the first time he's brought the two guitarists together. Guitarists often have the nasty habit of stepping on each others' toes, but Abercrombie and Parricelli seem to intuitively understand where they should be and when. Some of it is, no doubt, through arrangement, but it's also clear that these are two players who listen.
Wheeler has also played with Anders Jormin in the past, but it's the first time he's enlisted the bassist for one of his own efforts. Jorminthe perfect confluence of virtuosic technique, folkloric melodism, European classicism and jazz traditionis an ideal fit for Wheeler, but especially so given the wider context of this record.
"My New Hat opens with Jormin alone, his rich arco building a Spanish-tinged melody that's unusual for a Wheeler composition. But when Abercrombie and Parricelli enter on electric and nylon-string guitars respectively, and Jormin moves to a pizzicato pattern, Wheeler's voice becomes clear, even before he actually enters. Playing only flugelhorn, Wheeler combines with the particularly warm combination of guitars and full-bodied bass to create the lushest sounding record of his career. The guitar voicings on the gentle title track continue to allude to a Latin space. The changes, however, are pure Wheeler, and his controlan unequivocal melodism only occasionally broken by stratospheric leaps into his instrument's upper rangeremains remarkably intact for an artist now approaching 77 years of age.
"Fanfare an uncommon miniature where Wheeler layers three flugelhornsleads into a poignant look at "Love Theme from Spartacus where Wheeler sits out entirely. Wheeler has always brought together players who are more interested in interaction and collaboration than self-promotion, but this quartet takes that philosophy to a new level. Abercrombie, who never lacks in invention, sounds especially fresh and almost unrecognizable at times. It's as if he's achieved yet another stylistic breakthrough in a career defined by constant growth.
Whether it's a case of context reshaping even the most unmistakable of compositional styles or a subtle shift in compositional style forcing a re-evaluation of instrumental context, It Takes Two! is further evidence that Wheeler is one of the most significant artists of the past half century.
Personnel: Kenny Wheeler: flugelhorn; John Abercrombie: guitar; John Parricelli: guitar; Anders Jormin: double-bass.