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.