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For years I've admired the great Canadian musician Kenny Wheeler because of his fantastic compositions and arrangements, his incredible sound on both the trumpet and flugelhorn, his superb recordings as well as his wide open artistic vision. Last week I went to a big-band concert that featured Kenny as the guest performer and composer. At 70+ years of age Kenny still has the ability to amaze both as a player as well as composer. He sounds as fresh as any young lion and deep as any veteran. His pieces are full of complex harmonies and changing times and rhythms and have a wide variety of styles from straight ahead swing to totally free. Kenny's playing is completely wide open. He can go anywhere at anytime. His sound is uniquely beautiful and his range is as high as any lead trumpet player and lower than most trumpet players ever dare to go. His deep knowledge of harmony is hidden by his ability to make everything sound so easy. You could only tell how difficult some of the music was at the concert when someone else in the band tried to take a solo and stumbled over themselves. This is a fantastic growing improvising musician. One of the finest around!
Kenny was born in Toronto, Canada in 1930 into a musical family. He began playing cornet at age twelve and trumpet a few years later. After studying composition at the Toronto Conservatory he moved to England in 1952 where he began playing and composing pieces for many local big-bands. He continued to study composition in England with people like Bill Russo and Richard Rodney Bennett and began working with many well known players on the British scene like Ronnie Scott, Tubby Hayes and the Clarke-Boland big-band. Early in the 1960's Kenny became interested in free improvisation working with drummer John Stevens and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble as well as the incredible drummer/percussionist Tony Oxley's sextet which included other great British musicians like guitarist Derek Bailey and saxophonist Evan Parker.
In the late 1960's he began to explore electronic music when he joined the Mike Gibbs Orchestra which was an early British fusion band that explored many advanced ideas of harmony and rhythm using both electronic and acoustic instruments. But Kenny continued to play with many groups involved in abstract music such as the great Globe Unity Orchestra that also included many great European musicians like pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff and trumpeter Manfred Schoof as well as Anthony Braxton's quartet with British bassist Dave Holland and drummer Barry Altchul. In the mid 70's Kenny hooked up with the king of European jazz records Manfred Eicher and began recording for his ECM label. Kenny's first record for ECM won the German prize for best album of 1976. This classic recording called Gnu High (Kenny likes to play with words for his composition titles) and featured Dave Holland, Jack Dejohnette and Keith Jarrett. This is one of my absolute favorite recordings and should be in the collection of every serious record collector as should Kenny's second great recording on ECM entitled Deer Wan from 1978 with the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, as well as John Abercrombie on guitar and once again Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. Fantastic!!
In fact you should try and get your hands on almost every recording Kenny has done. Check out some of his more recent recordings like his duo with Paul Bley on Justin Time Records from 1996 or his latest ECM recordings which are both great from last year, Widow In The Window with John Taylor and singer Norma Winstone (with Kenny as a trio since 1977) as well as Dave Holland, and Peter Erskine on drums) and Music For Large and Small Ensembles. Kenny Wheeler is one of our great masters of improvised music and unfortunately has not been given even close to his due possibly because he developed his musical artistry mostly on the European jazz scene. But the European jazz world has always been full of superb improvisers that haven't been given much attention on our side of the ocean. If you've never heard Kenny Wheeler play go and see him or buy one of his many fantastic recordings. You'll be amazed!