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Kenny Wheeler: One of Many

John Kelman By

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In a 2001 Norma Winstone interview, the British vocalist referred to Kenny Wheeler as "the Duke Ellington of our time." Wheeler, whose reputation has grown almost in spite of his own quiet humility, may not possess Ellington's populist cachet, but that doesn't mean the trumpeter's music is any less distinctive or groundbreaking, and with no small reach: his music, studied in detail at universities around the world; his large ensemble work, grist for many a big band. Not being a household name needn't mean lack of significance, with Wheeler's place in jazz history long since assured as one of the most important composers of the last half century.

Equally influential on his instrument—with immaculate control facilitating the peppering of his unmistakably melancholic lyricism with sudden leaps into the stratosphere—there's no denying the harsh realities of age. The 81 year-old Wheeler may be predisposed to the middle range of his flugelhorn on One of Many, but he can still surprise, executing thrilling intervallic leaps during "Anticipation," the second of nine charts appearing, for the first time, on this, Wheeler's fifth recording for the Italian Cam Jazz label since the sublime delicacy of his duo debut with pianist of choice, John Taylor, Where Do We Go From Here? (2004).

Taylor is back for One of Many, bringing the kind of comfortable chemistry the two have shared dating back to Wheeler's early large ensemble recording, Song for Someone (Psi, 1973). But the wildcard in this trio set is surely Steve Swallow, who last collaborated with Taylor on New Old Age (Egea, 2005). Swallow has intersected with Wheeler before, but this is the first time he's appeared on one of the trumpeter's recordings—and the first time Wheeler has used an electric bass on any of his Cam or ECM releases. More than the obvious change in complexion—especially with Swallow's instrument, whose warm, full-bodied tone also possesses a unique clarity in the upper register—it's the bassist's comfortable dual-role as contrapuntal melodist and rhythmic and harmonic anchor that makes One of Many stand out in Wheeler's discography.

Nowhere is this more evident than on "Now and Now Again," reprised from The Widow in the Window (ECM, 1990). On that quintet session, Dave Holland's robust double-bass kept things firmly in ballad territory; here, Swallow keeps it equally simple, but occasionally moves seamlessly into a double-time feel, lending the track a different kind of swing. Wheeler sticks to flugelhorn throughout this elegant, largely low-to-mid-tempo set, though the trio does turn the heat up on "Anticipation," where Swallow's upper-register playing intertwines with Wheeler for its serpentine melody, leaving Taylor largely responsible for maintaining forward motion.

Returning to more straightforward blowing after the string-driven Other People (CAM Jazz, 2008) doesn't mean less compositional weight, only that there's greater emphasis on the trio's interpretive interaction. Another superb entry in the discography of an artist whose career has been marked by consistency and the sound of surprise, One of Many is, well, one more reason why comparing Wheeler to Ellington is astute—and right on the money.

Track Listing: Phrase 3; Anticipation; Aneba; Any How; Cater #5; Ever After (duo version); Now and Now Again; Old Ballad; Fortune's Child; Even After.

Personnel: Kenny Wheeler: flugelhorn; John Taylor: piano; Steve Swallow: electric bass.

Title: One Of Many | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: CAM Jazz

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