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Kenny Wheeler: Songs for Quintet

Ian Patterson By

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In the end, time—as is its wont—caught up with Kenny Wheeler, the much-loved Canadian-born trumpeter/flugelhornist and composer who made England his home for over sixty years. Happily, he was able to hear the results of the two-day Abbey Road sessions that produced, Songs for Quintet before he passed away last September 18. These Wheeler originals reveal the inevitable fragility that had crept into Wheeler's delivery—even since the remarkable Mirrors (Edition Records, 2013)—due to declining health but just as clearly emphasize the fearless improviser and extraordinary melodicist that he remained until the end.

For his final hurrah Wheeler keeps the company of tried and trusted collaborators in Stan Sulzman, John Parricelli, Chris Laurence and Martin France. The group interplay is as tight as you'd expect from musicians who have played and recorded together over long years. Sulzman and Wheeler in particular go back over forty years and the empathy is evident on their beautifully sculpted harmonic lines on "Seventy Six." Whether in flowing unison, bouncing off each other in arresting counterpoint or trading solos—the template for most of the songs—their dialog is splendidly soulful and emotive.

Though there are sparks here and there the quintet rarely catches fire, but then that's not what this session is about. The real charm of the music lies in its slyly modulating contours, the shifting moods and combinations of voices. In an interview with All About Jazz in 2013 on the making of Mirrors Norma Winstone said of Wheeler: "You think you know where the music is going, and then he turns another corner and finishes up somewhere else. He is always surprising."

This sound of surprise characterizes not only Wheeler's extended solos, notably on the sinewy quintet workout "Jigsaw" and the elegant "Pretty Liddle Waltz" but also on the imaginative reworking of an older tune, "Old Time," transformed from the Azimuth track "How it Was Then"—sung by Winstone on the band's final album—into a Charles Mingus-esque blues; Wheeler is in expansive form, with Sulzman and Parricelli following suit. "The Long Waiting" from Wheeler's big-band outing The Long Waiting (Cam Jazz, 2012) is fairly faithful to the original though this stripped down version, featuring wonderful solos from the leader, Parricelli and Sulzman in turn, reinforces the lyricism in Wheeler's ballad writing.

Laurence's bass ostinato serves as a building block for the strong ensemble piece "Canter No.1." France's martial drum intro to another old tune, "Sly Eyes," soon gives way to tango rhythms -a vehicle for blues-tinged solos from Wheeler, Laurence and Sulzman. Rumbling bass and drums underscore the curiously impressionistic vignette "1076" while Parricelli's feathery touch instills a ghostly samba vibe on "Nonetheless," with Wheeler's playing direct and heartfelt.

Songs for Quintet is a poignant closing statement from the great, highly influential Kenny Wheeler. His playing, though somewhat reduced, still captivates but like all his vehicles he led over forty five years the music's strength lies in the writing for the ensemble. A grower, Songs for Quintet marks a dignified and soulful final chapter in the stellar career of a unique figure.

Kenny Wheeler: January 14, 1930—September 18, 2014

Track Listing: Seventy Six; Jigsaw; The Long Waiting; Canter No.1; Sly Eyes; 1076; Old Time; Pretty Liddle Waltz; Nonetheless.

Personnel: Kenny Wheeler: flugelhorn; Stan Sulzman: tenor saxophone; John Parricelli: guitar; Chris Laurence: double bass; Martin France: drums.

Title: Songs for Quintet | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: ECM Records

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