Although he was born in Canada, Kenny Wheeler has been in the UK for over fifty years now, so we feel like he is our own.
I initially asked Wheeler for this interview at a gig at The Vortex last summer, one of the infrequent - and special - appearances of his big band, which includes such long-standing Wheeler collaborators as Evan Parker, Norma Winstone, John Taylor and Stan Sulzmann. When I told Parker that I wanted to interview Wheeler, his comment was, "There's a story there to be told. Don't let it get away." This reflects Wheeler's own self-effacing character and the comparative scarcity of interviews with him. When I interviewed Wheeler at the end of October, I started by asking him about this:
All About Jazz: You don't seem to be interviewed much. You seem to be a reluctant interviewee.
Kenny Wheeler: Yes. It's true. I've done a few over the years, I guess. But I'm not crazy about doing them.
AAJ: Why is that?
KW: I don't know. I suppose it's the same feeling as hearing your own voice on a tape recorder. Most people don't like it. It's a similar kind of feeling I suppose.
AAJ: You don't like reading what you've said?
KW: Sometimes I don't when I read it afterwards. I don't like trying to dig into myself that way, I guess.
AAJ: Are you happy for the music to speak for itself?
AAJ: The obvious place to begin seems to be with the new album on Psi. The most noticeable thing about it is how long it took to record. It was done over six or seven years.
KW: Evan came into contact with this studio at Gateway and was able to get the studio quite cheap at a certain time of year. He likes to make things happen, even if he has to do it himself. He knew the story of ECM; it's so hard to get a record for them. My average is one every three or four or five years. So he said would I like to do something at Gateway, not with anything in mind really. And it just grew from there. Towards the end of it all, since I'd done quite a few different things, he got the idea of doing duo, trio, quartet. That's the way Evan is. I guess he decided to put it out on his own label.
AAJ: When you started recording it, his own label didn't even exist.
KW: I don't know what idea we had in mind. We just did it, at Evan's prompting.
AAJ: Who selected the players? Were they your choice?
KW: I think we just agreed on them. Evan would suggest somebody and I don't ever remember him suggesting somebody that I didn't want. He seemed to know the people I would like to record with.
AAJ: So the choice was essentially his, with you approving it, rather than you having an ensemble in mind?
KW: I think that was it. I can't say for sure. It all started about six or seven years ago. But I do think that's the way it went, yes.
AAJ: How do you feel about the album? Presumably you're happy with the way it turned out?
KW: I daresay I am. It's again like the feeling I get when I have to do an interview. I never listen to my own records more than once or twice. Maybe seven or eight years later I'll pull it out again and listen. I don't even like to think about whether they are good or whether I like them. I'm just happy when other people seem to like them, you know. Evan seems quite proud of it, in a way, because it's his baby in a sense. A couple of times I said I'd like one track with him on it, but that will come later, he said. One day, maybe...
AAJ: It's under your name and they are your compositions but do you see it as more Evan's baby, in terms of the responsibility for it? You make it sound as if he was the driving force.
KW: He was the driving force in getting it all together and contacting the people. All I had to do was to come up with some music!
AAJ: Is that all! You say you don't listen back to your own albums. Why is that? Is it because you're always moving forward, looking to the future?
KW: I think I'm doing the same as I was thirty years ago. I'm still trying to find soppy romantic melodies mixed with a bit of chaos. That's what I've always done, I think. It is not really a question of moving forward. (I forget what the question was, now.) [AAJ: Why you don't listen to your own albums.] Well, I've said this before a few times. I'm not really crazy about my solos. Your solo is definitely down to you, and you only have a split second to decide what the next note is going to be. When you write a composition, a tune - whatever you like to call it - you can labour over it, change things, rub things out, until you like it. I do like a lot of my compositions, but in the end I don't feel like I really own them. If you like, I have been lucky to tap into some source and picked them up, and I got them before anyone else did. I think Hoagy Carmichael said that about "Stardust", he got it before anyone else got it. I have the same feeling about the tunes I write. I quite like them because I don't feel responsible. But the solo, nobody is to blame but yourself.
AAJ: Do you see yourself as a perfectionist, then? Is any recording going to be imperfect compared to some ideal way that you think it should be?
KW: I never think in those terms. Evan sent me some reviews the other day of Dream Sequence that he got off the Internet. There was a really glowingly good one but then there were three or four little ones that made me feel sick and negative and horrible. One guy mentioned that, "Wheeler sits in now and again at The Vortex and does one set. I hope Wheeler is not trying to protect his ECM base." As if I'm hiding away in London and only doing it now and again in a small situation. That made me feel really sick, that anyone could sit there and watch a set and then print that on the Internet after. There was a couple of other...(I forgot the question again.) [AAJ: Whether you always feel a recording is imperfect.] One of the little things was that one guy thought that the record was too perfect. "Wheeler's pitch was spot on." But he was looking for a bit of grit or dirt in there. I don't think about whether I'm playing in tune or playing correctly. I just don't have those thoughts. What does perfect mean? I suppose I don't really have those thoughts at all. Trying to make a perfect record in my own mind, whatever my own feeling of a perfect record is - I don't even know what that is.
AAJ: I suppose the distinction is that a solo is in the moment and then it's gone; it is what it is. Whereas a composition you can hone it, polish it. Is that the distinction between not particularly liking your own solos and liking your compositions, that you get a chance to work at the compositions?
KW: I suppose you could work at a solo. Especially in the old days in big bands when you got two solos a night. Sometimes I used to think I'd plan the first eight bars of my solo but it always went wrong. I'd get into bar two and it would be all.... I could never plan out a solo. It has to be immediate, you know. You could have a little phrase that maybe you could start with. Like the only solo of mine I really like is that one on Around 6 , called "Solo One". It is only about three or four minutes. That's completely solo, because Manfred Eicher suggested I play a completely solo track. I thought, "What the hell will I do?" Anyway, I did have this little phrase I'd been fiddling around with, not with any motive in mind, and so I started the solo and built it around that little phrase, and it kind of worked OK. I do like that one three or four minute solo. But I could never really plan a solo in any way.
AAJ: How much of the fact that you like it is because it was solo, you were on your own, self-contained?
KW: I would have liked it anyway, whether I'd been with bass and drums. I'm just happy it came off, a little phrase I'd been playing with, I transposed into different registers and fiddled with it. I was just happy with the way it came off. In a sense, it was again, I suppose, the idea of when you perfect a written piece, that I was perfecting it - no, not perfecting it but planning it - in the sense that I had this little phrase and took it to different registers. It was comparable to the writing activity.
AAJ: More like a spontaneous composition. One thing that has been commented on in your music is a timeless quality. It is interesting that the album took seven years to do, but there is no sense of the old stuff sounding seven years older compared to the later stuff. Is that something you recognise in your music, something you aim for?
KW: I don't really aim for it, but I like the fact that that is happening. It seems to happen to other people. I suppose you could say that although I started listening to really early jazz, like Louis Armstrong, when I was a kid, it was when I was fifteen that I met the first group of friends I ever had who turned me on to bebop. So I really consider bebop as my real roots, I suppose. When I got to like that, I really loved Dizzy, Bud, Fats Navarro, and all those people. I suppose I must have spent the next fifteen or twenty years trying to play in that sense, not exactly like them, but my idea of that music. I never felt comfortable with what I was doing until I met the group of young guys here, Evan Parker, John Stevens, all them. They kind of welcomed me. They didn't say, "You're welcome" but they admitted me into their circle. Through meeting them, I got more comfortable with whatever I was trying to do, whatever that was. Then I began to hear some players who were not what I'd call straight bebop - like Booker Little is an example I've used a lot. I felt more comfortable with myself, around the early to middle 70s, because I still hope that what I do is jazz but I also hope I don't have a lot of hot licks. If I were to play with a rhythm section that was playing straight ahead bebop, I would feel very uncomfortable. I like to play in a loose situation, you know. I try to throw in a little bebop but I try not to throw in bebop licks. Try. As I said, you only have a split second to decide what you're going to do next. There are players who are great jazz players but don't necessarily play in the mode of other people. I like those players who look like they are searching for a tune or a melody in their solos. Jim Hall. I would even put Sonny Rollins in that. Chris Potter - they say it's bebop he plays, and I suppose it is, but the way he puts phrases together is fantastic. A lot of younger players coming up - Mark Turner - are in that category. Although a lot of younger players you can definitely say are New York bop, New York post-bop or whatever. But there seems to be a feeling amongst the Brad Mehldaus and all them of doing something different.