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Kenny Wheeler’s records for the most part have featured small groups dotted with big names from the ECM stable: Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, Keith Jarrett, John Abercrombie, Peter Erskine, Bill Frisell, and so on. Here the Canadian-born trumpeter/composer recruits a brass ensemble from his adopted home, England. There are four trumpets, two trombones, two bass trombones, and even a conductor, and none of the names will be familiar to most American listeners. Wheeler restricts himself to fluegelhorn and is supported by a rhythm section consisting of John Taylor on piano, John Parricelli on guitar, and no one on drums. Taylor has appeared with Wheeler many times before; Parricelli is a new face, and his Abercrombie-like touch fits right in.
"The Long Time Ago Suite" opens the record and clocks in at nearly thirty-two minutes. Lush brass passages alternate with intimate solo spotlights for trombone, fluegelhorn, guitar, and piano. The effect is akin to a split screen or a parallel drama unfolding at opposite ends of a theater stage. One might view it simply as Wheeler’s classical and jazz influences attempting to cohabitate. The brass sections are legit chamber music; the solos flow with a light, loose, Wheeler-trademark swing. At times the dynamics verge on extreme, with the solos sounding almost hushed compared to the hugeness of the brass ensemble. But when the band drops out and John Taylor goes it alone, he manages to fill up the big, empty space and propel the music forward, which is no easy task.
On the heels of this very long opener, the remaining selections go by rather quickly. The two shortest tracks do not include guitar and piano. These are "One Plus Three" (Versions 1 and 2), a minimalistic, dissonant fragment featuring Wheeler and three trumpets; and "Going for Baroque," an explicit nod to J.S. Bach with a wonderful trick ending. A beautiful trombone chorale begins the grimly titled "Ballad for a Dead Child." Of particular interest to longtime Wheeler fans is an updated arrangement of "Gnu Suite," which originally appeared on Wheeler’s 1975 album Gnu High (ECM).
The first section of "Eight Plus Three/Alice My Dear" is rather ingenious: Taylor plays agitated trills while trumpets sustain chords and a single trombone improvises over them. Then the bones sustain the chords while a trumpet takes over the improvisation. Bones and trumpets then sustain together, with single-note piano flurries above. Finally bones, trumpets, and piano all sustain the chords while the guitar riffs away on top. The track then segues artlessly into "Alice My Dear," which is more up-tempo, with piano and bass trombones doubling a catchy low-register riff.
It’s fascinating to hear Wheeler’s unique harmonic vocabulary interpreted by a full horn section. Individual voices attain a clarity not really possible on the piano. At times Wheeler’s harmonies sound almost pre-modern in their strangeness. The absence of drums heightens the strangeness while endowing the music with an unusually relaxed time feel.
Kenny Wheeler, fluegelhorn; John Taylor, piano; John Parricelli, guitar; Derek Watkins, John Barclay, Henry Lowther, Ian Hamer, trumpets; Pete Beachill, Mark Nightingale, trombones; Sarah Williams, Dave Stewart, bass trombones; Tony Faulkner, conductor.