Ken Wheeler & The John Dankworth Orchestra: Windmill Tilter

John Kelman By

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Ken Wheeler & The John Dankworth Orchestra: Windmill Tilter Long considered a holy grail of British jazz, trumpet legend/iconic composer Kenny Wheeler's classic 1969 Fontana leader debut, Windmill Tilter, has remained curiously out of print—never, in fact, appearing legitimately on CD.

Until now. Thanks to Andy Gray and BGO Records—a label responsible for a wealth of 1960s and '70s British jazz reissues—Windmill Tilter is finally available on CD and it's been worth the wait. Not only does it find Wheeler—listed here as "Ken," a Canadian expat who, emigrating to England in the 1950s, quickly made it into the British jazz elite, despite an introverted nature that might have been self-limiting, had he not been such a remarkable player—in early fine form as a composer, but with the participation of saxophonist/bandleader John Dankworth's Orchestra, it's a window into the early careers of a couple other younger players destined for greatness.

Recorded in March, 1968—the reticent Wheeler encouraged, by Dankworth, to write an album while recovering from dental surgery that put him out of commission—it's a chance to hear bassist Dave Holland before he headed to North America for greater fame with Miles Davis; also, a young John McLaughlin in a more straight-ahead context than his grittier, fusion-esque work with Davis, when the guitarist left for America in 1969, to play with Davis drummer Tony Williams' electrified Lifetime band and on the trumpeter's iconic In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1969).

While the majority of this 41-minute, nine-part suite, based on the life of Don Quixote, features an ensemble stretching to over 15 players, two quintet tracks—Wheeler, McLaughlin and Holland, along with saxophonist Tony Coe and drummer John Spooner—presage later exceptional small ensemble work, including Wheeler's award-winning Gnu High (ECM, 1976). Bolstered by Spooner's brushwork and Holland's already unshakable sense of swing on the ambling "Sweet Dulcinea Blue," McLaughlin's lengthy solo demonstrates early expertise in distinctive voicings, and navigating changes with lithe dexterity, while solos from Wheeler and Coe are shorter, but equally impressive. The shorter but more buoyant "Propheticape" again provides time for lucid solos from Wheeler, Coe and McLaughlin, the guitarist's comping an early sign of his equal but often less-lauded rhythmic acumen.

Wheeler's large ensemble pieces, constituting the bulk of the disc, foreshadow later large ensemble work like Song for Someone (Psi, 1973) and the more expansive Music for Large & Small Ensembles (ECM, 1990). If anything, Wheeler's emergent voice as a writer and player (here, solely on flugelhorn) is surprisingly well-formed, with the harmonic ambiguity and melancholic tinge of his later work already in evidence, albeit slightly more aligned with the American tradition at this point, though Tristan Fry's vibes lend a slightly ethereal off-balance to the greater weight of the horns and saxophones.

Singer Norma Winstone once called Wheeler "the Duke Ellington of our times."On the strength of the long overdue CD issue of Windmill Tilter—released in time for Wheeler's 80th birthday in 2010—it's hard to dispute the importance of a writer/trumpeter who, as early as this 1968 date, was well on his way to supporting his future collaborator's well-deserved accolade.

Track Listing: Preamble; Don the Dreamer; Sweet Dulcinea Blue; Bachelor Sam; Sancho; The Cave of Montesinos; Propheticape; Altisidora; Don No More.

Personnel: Kenny Wheeler: flugelhorn; Derek Watkins: trumpet (1, 2, 4-6, 8, 9); Henry Shaw: trumpet (1, 2, 4-6, 8, 9); Henry Lowther: trumpet (1, 2, 4-6, 8, 9); Les Condon: trumpet (1, 2, 4-6, 8, 9); Chris Pyne: trombone: (1, 2, 4-6, 8, 9); Mike Gibbs: trombone: (1, 2, 4-6, 8, 9); John Dankworth: saxophone (1, 2, 4-6, 8, 9); Ray Swinfield: saxophone (1, 2, 4-6, 8, 9); Tony Robert: saxophone (1, 2, 4-6, 8, 9); Tony Coe: saxophone; Alf Reece: tuba (1, 2, 4-6, 8, 9); Dick Hart: tuba (1, 2, 4-6, 8, 9); Bob Corford: piano (1, 2, 4-6, 8, 9); Alan Branscome: piano (1, 2, 4-6, 8, 9); John McLaughlin: guitar; Dave Holland: bass; John Spooner: drums; Tristan Fry: percussion (1, 2, 4-6, 8, 9).

Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: BGO Records | Style: Modern Jazz

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