There are very few major artists who, like Kenny Wheeler, have the ironic misfortune of being simultaneously revered and ignored. Talk to any astute jazz musician and Wheeler's name is likely to be held in high esteem, yet the record- buying public still has scarcely a clue as to how valuable this 69-year-old trumpeter has been to music over the past several decades. His projects for ECM are regarded as highlights of the entire catalog, not to mention being some of the better small group jazz recordings of recent vintage.
As a distinguished follow-up to his previous release, Angel Song, this new Wheeler recording seems like a logical extension in that a chamber-like atmosphere once again provides the mode of expression. Wheeler's chosen grouping this time out is an eight-piece brass ensemble, with pianist John Taylor and guitarist John Parricelli thrown in the mix for good measure. There's almost a contemporary classical feel to much of the music, most notably on "Going for Baroque," a piece whose witty title further suggests Wheeler's sardonic sense of humor and love of a good pun.
The centerpiece here is a half-hour excursion simply titled "The Long Time Ago Suite." As skilled a writer as he is a player, Wheeler crafts an enchanting performance that has largely been through-composed. Taking some simple motifs, Wheeler develops the piece via manifold permutations and tempos. Utilizing his flugelhorn throughout the proceedings, his dulcet tones are heard to great advantage, as are the solo voices of Taylor and Parricelli. The other lengthy piece revisits an earlier masterpiece. "Gnu Suite" comes from the album that really put Kenny on the map in 1975, Gnu High. This realization is less grandiose, but no less rewarding.
High marks all around for Wheeler's proficient use of the brass and his lush scoring. With much regret, there's truly too little of Wheeler's large ensemble writing available, making this a precious addition to his catalog. On the other hand, those looking for more of a jazz-laden gathering may find the lack of a rhythm section cause for a bit of a paradigm shift.