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Recent Listening: Kenny Wheeler, Don Thompson

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Kenny Wheeler, Other People (Cam Jazz). Perenially adventurous, always on the leading edge of music, Wheeler was seventy-five when this was recorded in 2005. His playing on trumpet and flugelhorn is brilliant, with little of the lassitude that has sometimes crept in as he aged. The even more striking aspect of this CD is Wheeler's writing. He applies his distinctive style to strings, a medium new to him as a composer.

Lacing his horn lines through and around the Hugo Wolf String Quartet, Wheeler brings to string writing the tart voicings, subsurface rhythms and plaintive melodies that have long characterized his compositions and orchestrations for combinations of horns. The Wolf Quartet's interpretations of the sections with long, keening lines emphasize the pungency and poignancy that is central to Wheeler's work. On some pieces, Wheeler's frequent piano companion John Taylor solos with his customary incisiveness and lyricism. The most stunning achievement in the recording, however, has neither horn, piano nor improvisation. It is Wheeler's “String Quartet n. 1," a through-composed concert work with riveting thematic development and gently insistent rhythmic pulses. This is the belated debut of a composer of concert chamber music to be taken seriously.

 

Don Thompson Quartet, For Kenny Wheeler (Sackville). Thompson is one who takes Wheeler seriously, indeed. In his CD notes about Wheeler, the composer, bassist, pianist and vibraharpist writes of his fellow Canadian:

I can't think of anyone else in jazz with his gift of melody and understanding of harmony and counterpoint. It's my opinion (and that of many others) that Kenny is the most important composer in jazz today. To me he is today's Duke Ellington.

All of the compositions are by Thompson. Only “For Kenny Wheeler" and “K.T.T." (Kenny Type Tune) overtly refer to Wheeler in their titles. Throughout, Thompson's compositional methods reflect Wheeler's. Because of the skill and assurance of the quartet, this complex music flows as naturally as if was standards and ordinary blues. Thompson's sidemen are his longtime colleague Terry Clarke on drums (they were together in Paul Desmond's last band), saxophonist Phil Dwyer and bassist Jim Vivian, three of Canada's most distinguished musicians.

Thompson plays piano on six of the tracks, vibes on two with Dwyer supporting him and soloing on piano. Dwyer tends toward dreaminess on soprano and gutsiness on tenor, as in the decidedly unordinary “The Peregrine Blues," with its eccentric intervals and glancing counterpoint with Thompson's piano. Vivian and Clarke are splendid throughout. Clarke's brush and cymbal commentary behind Dwyer's tenor on “Another Time, Another Place" is a highlight, Vivian's solo on “For Scott LaFaro" another. The recordings I return to for frequent play over the years are those in which I keep hearing new facets. This seems destined to be one of those albums.

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