When artists move into their eighties, every new album is a gift. It's difficult enough for any octogenarian musician to maintain his/her game, but especially horn players, for whom embouchure and breath are so essential to tone and reach. Six for Six is, however, a curious gift from expat Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, who's made Britain his home since the mid-'50s. Recorded in 2008, it's his first sextet recording since 2003's Dream Sequenceand even that album only featured one piece for all six players. What that really means, then, is that Six for Six is Wheeler's first real sextet date since 1980's Around 6, and his very first with a lineup consisting, in addition to his inimitable horn work, of two saxophones, piano, bass and drums.
It's a curious program: a full six of its eight tracks were heard just last year on Wheeler's superb big band outing, The Long Waiting (Cam Jazz, 2012), but they couldn't be more different, demonstrating just how malleable Wheeler's charts can be. Recorded in 2011, The Long Waiting, "Seven, Eight, Nine" was a relatively concise, mid-tempo swinger that featured just one solo (Wheeler); here, it's broken into two parts spread across the record. The album-opening "Part 1" opens with a powerful a cappella intro from drummer Martin France
that sets the tone for an album that's Wheeler's most flat-out incendiary since Double, Double You (ECM, 1984). Unlike The Long Waiting's mixed meter reading of 7/8, 6/8 and 4/4, "Part 1" here sticks with a constant 4/4, but at a much brighter clipand with plenty more solo space for Wheeler, tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins
Excising the original's second theme for further extrapolation, "Seven, Eight, Nine (Part 2)," is taken at a slightly slower pace than "Part 1" (but still considerably brighter than the big band version) and, while significantly shorter, still leaves room for impressive solos from Sulzmann (this time on tenor), Taylor and Wheeler, with Laurence a firm but pliant anchor and France, once again, playing with fire and unfettered freedom throughout this bright 6/8 take.
Wellins is the only new face here, with Sulzmann, pianist John Taylor
all longtime Wheeler collaborators; and, although France only made his first recorded appearance with Wheeler on The Long Waiting, he's been gigging with the trumpeter for some time, and has been a member of Taylor's trio since the pianist's superb Angel of the Presence (Cam Jazz, 2006). Still, with Wellins an alumnus of British luminaries like Stan Tracey
, it's unlikely that this is the first time he and Wheeler have broken musical bread together. On the flip side to more powerful tracks like "Upwards," which more closely mirrors the energy of The Long Waiting's version, albeit with a significantly altered arrangement, Six for Six's fresh look at "The Long Waiting," with its spare duo intro from Wheeler and Taylor, is taken at a slower pace, while the more amiable pulse of the big band's "Four, Five Six" is deserted here for a shorter version that still manages to squeeze in another piano/trumpet intro, a fiery rubato exchange between Sulzmann and Wellins and, finallyand at a faster clipspace for concise but high octane solos from Wellins, Taylor, Wheeler and France.
It's not just because, with the exception of The Long Waiting, Six for Six is Wheeler's first Cam Jazz recording to feature a drummerthough France certainly lights one heckuva fire underneath his band mates, while still proving capable of a gentler disposition on more subdued fare like "Ballad N. 130" and the brighter, but lighter-textured "The Imminent Immigrant," making its first appearance since Wheeler's quartet date All the More (Soul Note, 1997). In a career now approaching its sixth decade, Wheeler's writing has not lost any of the unmistakable lyricism that's been a defining touchstone since early recordings like the classic Gnu High (ECM, 1976), but even as he's passed the 83 mark this year, Wheeler's lost neither his tone nor his remarkable reachhis closing, stratospheric note at the end of "Four, Five, Six" being something to which many trumpeters half his age still aspire.
Not since Double, Double You has Wheeler released an album as exhilarating as Six for Six. With a sextet capable of delivering both the firepower and the poetry, hopefully this won't be another of the one-shot deals that have defined the rest of Wheeler's nevertheless impressive discography.
Track Listing: Seven, Eight, Nine (Part 1); Canter N. 6; The Long Waiting; Four, Five, Six; Ballad N. 130; Seven, Eight, Nine (Part 2); The Imminent Immigrant; Upwards.
Personnel: Kenny Wheeler: trumpet, flugelhorn; Stan Sulzmann: tenor and soprano saxophone; Bobby Wellins: tenor saxophone; John Taylor: piano; Chris Laurence: bass; Martin France: drums.