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portrait, August 1981
Four Seasons Hotel, Edmonton, Alberta, during Jazz City Festival
Shot during our first meeting, at which the first thing Wheeler said to me was that he wasn't much on smiling for photos, something he proceeded to prove true for the next 27 years.
Wheeler photo captions:
All photographs are © by Patrick Hinely, Work/Play®
Azimuth: Kenny Wheeler, Norma Winstone and John Taylor
band photo, August 1987
courtyard of Ethel's Place club, Baltimore MD
Shot during one of the trio's rare appearances in North America, after soundcheck late on a summer's afternoon, near the waterfront, hot and humid enough that we kept moving for fear that we’d mildew if we didn't.
rehearsal, January 1991
Blues Alley, Washington DC
Wheeler's quintet had an all-afternoon rehearsal at the venue, and here we see him going at it, next to the arm of John Abercrombie, behind which can be seen the arm of bassist Gary Peacock, subbing in for regular Dave Holland.
Kenny Wheeler and Dave Holland
ECM recording session, February 1996
Power Station, New York City
Shot early on during the ANGEL SONG sessions, this is the closest I ever saw either man come to mugging for a photo, and it wasn't really the photo they were mugging for, it was each other: while sorting charts, these two long-time if not frequent colleagues were reciting lines from Laurel and Hardy on that duo's famous theme of 'another fine mess.' The recording was anything but.
John Abercrombie and Kenny Wheeler
between sets, in upstairs green room, December 2001
Blues Alley, Washington DC
Not seen is the trio's other member, pianist Marc Copland, who was busy scribbling charts inches behind me in a room far too tiny for all of these huge musical personalities. Their music was a delightful orgy of melody, played for an audience far too small in the post-9/11 atmosphere of that city.
Luciana Souza, Kenny Wheeler and Andrew Rathbun
rehearsal with Andrew Rathbun big band, August 2002
Context Studios, Brooklyn NY
A fellow Torontonian expatriate, saxophonist Rathbun assembled a big band to present a program of Wheeler's and his own music at Birdland, including one of Wheeler's extended suites, which they are playing here, the only piece to feature vocalist Souza, who is one of a very few in the world capable of as gracious a reading of Wheeler's scores as Norma Winstone.
Sound checking in recording studio, November 2008
WDR Studio, Koeln, Germany
As a guest with the WDR Big Band, arguably Germany's finest, Wheeler was given the soloist's booth, and is here seen there in splendid isolation.
Kenny Wheeler and Norma Winstone
after the recording session, November 2008
WDR Studio, Koeln, Germany
Perhaps it was because by now that I knew better than to expect, much less ask for a smile, that Kenny just up and looked as happy as I ever saw him look. Of course being in the company of the great vocalist, lyricist/poet and fellow human being Norma Winstone would be enough to make any thinking man happy. Little did I know this would be the last photo I would ever take of Kenny Wheeler, but I have come to think of it as a nice high note to go out on.
Born 14, January 1930, Toronto, died 18 September 2014, London
There is little that Kenny Wheeler did not do, seemingly even less he could not do.
He was of that generation of European-based jazz players who dared to find and then follow their own voices, in the process making not only something from nothing, but something of worth, while their work evolved within a historical context in which deference to American players, especially beboppers and assorted other acrobats, constituted its own sort of caste system.
Not that players like Wheeler - or Albert Mangelsdorff, to name another of those trailblazers - were grousing about an inequitable status quo, railing in opposition, or touting their music as newer, different and better: they were busy, going intently about their work, and, as it turned out, could grow in several directions at once, and excel in all. They were consistently creating music of high quality, in the process leveling the international playing field, producing music which would rise up to equal and, in the view of some, as the decades passed, surpass what was simultaneously evolving - or devolving - in the USA.
Wheeler was Canadian by birth but had voluntarily headquartered in London by age 22, and went about building a career, transcending any lingering feelings of provincial inadequacy by paying his dues, participating in a steadily-developing British scene, rising into the trumpet section of its foremost big band, that of John Dankworth. He spent several years in those ranks, at the same time cultivating what became ever-increasing studio calls. The session work did not always require playing commensurate with his talent and versatility, but it supported his family.
It would be Dankworth's very pragmatic commission, in 1967, meant to keep Wheeler in the stable while recovering from dental surgery which precluded his playing for a couple of months, that led to Wheeler's debut album WINDMILL TILTER. It was in the stores - in the UK only - for the proverbial 20 minutes. Anyone who listened to it heard an imaginative composer, able player and estimable arranger who, with this debut album at age 38, had arrived fully formed, and conjured a new way to piece the puzzle together, alternating powerful yet subtle quintet and big band features for his harmonically advanced charts with a poetic narrative flow. By the time it was finally reissued on CD in 2010, LP copies had long been changing hands for hundreds of dollars apiece. Fortunately, most of his dozens of more recent albums can be found for far more reasonable prices.
It is said we can look forward to a much-needed biography of Wheeler by Nick Smart, who was amongst the trumpeters for Wheeler’s final big band recording, THE LONG WAITING, though no publication date has yet been announced. Smart is Head of Jazz at the Royal Academy of Music, the institution to which Wheeler left his collected papers.
More than once since the1970s, I've written about Wheeler or his work, beginning with a review of Deer Wan for JAZZ (1978), and most recently - and comprehensively - for CODA (#339, May/June 2008). Both of those publications are now, sadly, defunct. Some themes, passages and photographs I originally published earlier and elsewhere there will be reprised and, where pertinent, updated here. I would also recommend Jerry D’Souza’s interview with Wheeler in CODA (# 282, Nov/Dec 1998).
Much was written about Wheeler upon his death, leaving no need for me to pile on to all that earnestly-earned and well-meant praise, so my intent is rather to present some otherwise-unpublished words of tribute from a few of his colleagues, a few inscrutable words of wisdom from the man himself, relate a couple of stories about Wheeler which perhaps will eventually become part of his lore and legend and offer a brief but hopefully comprehensive selected discography.
Winnowing Wheeler's recorded oeuvre to ten albums is especially challenging, because each presents yet another distinctly unique facet of the many-sided gem his music is, so I've made it ten each for Wheeler as bandleader and ten as band member under the aegis of others, and also appended the Azimuth recordings as an entire category unto themselves, though there are only seven at most.
Admittedly, my selections tend to feature Wheeler the player as composer/leader and not as a participant in free music, for I am not nearly as familiar with recordings of the latter as of the former. It is important in any case to recognize Wheeler as a pioneering co-founder of the free scene, especially that particular/peculiar British variety of free jazz which, thanks to the likes of John Stevens, was already percolating in London when The Blue Notes arrived, those South African expats who promptly fomented a virtual explosion on several musical fronts.
Wheeler once told me he enjoyed free playing most when it followed more conventional gigs, providing a welcome opportunity to blow off steam at evening’s end and to try out some new ideas in a less structured setting. Those late-night aerobic bloodbaths came to catch on in an even bigger way in Germany and the Netherlands, enough to lure Wheeler to the continent more and more frequently, where he also picked up less avant- though not necessarily less adventurous other gigs, the result being that for much of his career, he commuted from the UK to the continent for the bulk of his income-producing work. His membership in the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, the United Jazz + Rock Ensemble and bands led by Graham Collier, Mike Gibbs, Anthony Braxton, Alex Von Schlippenbach, George Gruntz and especially Dave Holland should also be mentioned, for he distinguished himself in each of those contexts as well. I won’t even try to enumerate his one-off recordings beyond saying there are hundreds.
From trumpeter Tom Arthurs, British-born, now living in Berlin:
It’s pretty much impossible to imagine how the musical lives of most of my generation would have turned out if it wasn’t for Kenny Wheeler - such a sound, such a personal-yet-generous and big-hearted approach to music-making, such beauty - and always so clear who was speaking - from Spontaneous Music Ensemble and Globe Unity, through Azimuth and the small groups to his own big band scoring, Kenny Wheeler showed us it’s all possible.
WINDMILL TILTER – (BGO CD reissue, 2010, UK) Addressed above. The core quintet for this 1968 debut comprised Wheeler, John McLaughlin, Dave Holland (pre-Miles for the both of ‘em), Tony Coe and John Spooner. Cervantes would have marveled at this interpretation of his Don Quixote saga. The wistful nature of Wheeler’s melodic proclivity is already clearly evident. God bless Sir John Dankworth for giving Wheeler something to do while recuperating.
SONG FOR SOMEONE – (Psi CD reissue, 2004, UK) A decidedly and distinctively different large-ensemble outing from its predecessor, this is where Wheeler really gets to start being Wheeler as a bandleader, peopling his ranks with the best players from across the spectrum, bringing together 20 of London's finest – including Evan Parker, Mike Osborne, Derek Bailey, Tony Oxley, John Taylor and Norma Winstone - and giving them plenty of opportunities to excel, as does the trumpet soloist too. This music has focus and energy, unusual for that time, when most such projects had one or the other, but not both.
GNU HIGH – (ECM, 1976) Seemingly noted as often for being Keith Jarrett's last appearance as a sideman (making Wheeler the only trumpeter/bandleader besides Miles Davis for whom the pianist filled that role) as for being Wheeler's first recording beyond the shores of Albion, there's much more to it than that, in the open-endedness of the extended tunes, well-explored by all involved. Featuring Holland and Jack DeJohnette in the rhythm section, it could have been billed as Wheeler with a Miles Davis alumni band. It has proven durable, and auspicious for what would follow.
DEER WAN – (ECM, 1978) When I reviewed this in 1978, I said listening to a Wheeler tune made me feel like I'd arrived, after having been somewhere. All I would add to that in hindsight is to say he traveled via the scenic route. The two guitarists, John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner, add to the conversation with their own textural vocabularies, as saxophonist Jan Garbarek sounds like himself, while Holland and DeJohnette again provide anchors.
AROUND SIX – (ECM, 1980) This is Wheeler in yet another prime element, bringing such outside players as Evan Parker and Edward Vesala to his inside music and demolishing the barriers between, by writing, as did Ellington, specifically for those who would play the music, but still composing very much in his own style, where the line between inside and outside was always blurry at best. Trombonist Eje Thelin, vibist Tom Van Der Geld and bassist J.-F. Jenny-Clark round out the sextet.
DOUBLE DOUBLE YOU – (ECM, 1984) The 14+ minute opener “Foxy Trot” is one of those rare musical Mobius Strips that goes on, deliciously, with a constant verve few can sustain with such gleeful triumph. This album showcases some of Michael Brecker's best work, with Holland and DeJohnette maintaining the foundation upon which pianist John Taylor and the horn players dance. Some of Wheeler’s most traditional/conventional tunes provide plenty of stepping-off points for explorations much closer to the edge than the middle, yet never sound stretched, but rather, adventurous.
ANGEL SONG – (ECM, 1997) In the interest of full disclosure, I must acknowledge my good fortune to have been present at the creation of this music, which was a human drama already fascinating long before a note was played, as Wheeler, though titular leader and composer of all the music, respectfully deferred to the seniority of Lee Konitz, while Dave Holland served as de facto interlocutor between Wheeler and producer Manfred Eicher, who did his best to steer the ship without ever being seen at the helm. Once the tapes were rolling, everyone became part of a whole greater than the sum of its parts – and its parts were each pretty remarkable unto themselves, with guitarist Bill Frisell matter-of-factly summoning up whole galaxies of orchestrally supportive texture while Konitz and Wheeler conversed with more intensity than density as Holland paced the proceedings. Sweet stuff.
WHAT NOW? - (CAM Jazz, 2005) Wheeler's later drummerless quartet recording, featuring Chris Potter with Wheeler vets Taylor and Holland. Of the seven albums Wheeler recorded for CAM Jazz, (each with a different lineup), this is the one I go back to most often, possibly because it can be seen as Angel Song unto the next generation. Wayne Shorter is reported to have said, when asked what it felt like to be the best saxophonist in the world, that he didn’t know – that you’d have to ask Chris Potter. Nor did Wheeler stop checking out the up-and-coming players – in his even later years, he shared a front line with Jon Irabagon…
THE LONG WAITING – (CAM Jazz, 2012) Wheeler's final big band recording, with the usual suspects: old hands and some of London's other finest players, many of whom appeared as volunteers among the 20 in the ranks. It’s a summation of sorts, featuring tunes old and new, with Wheeler and conductor Pete Churchill in more mutual league than the several big bands with whom Wheeler had recorded whole albums in several countries during the preceding decades. Those others were all hors d’ouvres, while this is the entrée. Less varied in ensemble permutations than the more widely-acknowledged double-disc masterpiece MUSIC FOR LARGE AND SMALL ENSEMBLES (ECM, 1991), it may be the stronger presentation. In short: if you like this one, go for the two-fer next…
SONGS FOR QUINTET – (ECM, 2015) The wise old master convened long-time colleagues for what turned out to be his final album: Stan Sulzmann, guitarist John Parricelli, bassist Chris Laurence and drummer Martin France. Wheeler’s and saxophonist Sulzmann’s exchanges twirl gracefully, more like ballet dancers than dervishes. Though past the days of his customary blazing solos, the fire still glowed, with the coals banked in a way to let all the players bask in the warmth. Photos of Wheeler from the sessions show an older gentleman, who, if diminished by time, is yet undaunted, and determined to speak his unique truth. A vision that keeps coming to me as I listen to this music is of the band members joining hands to collectively lift Wheeler up as all play their hearts out, lovingly enveloping him. Little about this album sounds valedictory, but it is a fittingly high note for the man to go out on.
From long-time colleague and friend Norma Winstone:
Kenny took some spectacles to the optician to be mended; they had screws missing, etc. (he was always dropping them). He told me that there was a nice young lady behind the counter and he asked “Can you do something with these?” She thanked him and said that they would send them to Ethiopia, as there was a great need for them there. He just left them with her, without saying why he had really brought them in. He told me that he didn’t want to disappoint her! Such things can hardly be made up.
As a member of Azimuth:
Wheeler thought of this trio as John Taylor's band, since the pianist instigated its formation and, at least at the outset, wrote most of the music. He and Wheeler had already been playing in each other’s bands for years, and both had worked extensively with vocalist Norma Winstone, Taylor’s wife at the time, as well. Taylor’s initial concept was a duo with Winstone, to which ECM hegemon Manfred Eicher suggested adding a third member. The choice was unanimous and the rest is history. Never did Wheeler shine brighter or more uniquely than as a member of this trio, a peak not only for British chamber jazz but arguably for the ECM label itself. They defy gravity with their ethereality, yet the substance is there, gracefully presented with overwhelming understatement… And so on. One can hardly go wrong with any of their recordings.
AZIMUTH (ECM, 1977) – Few critics knew quite what to do with this album when it appeared, for there was nothing to compare it to, a quality which eventually came to be a trademark of this group.
THE TOUCHSTONE (ECM, 1978) – More of the same, and equally engaging.
DEPART (ECM, 1980) – The only album with a guest: guitarist Ralph Towner of the quartet Oregon, one of the few other ensembles on the planet possessing a similar sort of subtle intensity.
Those first three albums were reissued as a 3-CD set (ECM #1546 – 48, 1994)
AZIMUTH '85 (ECM, 1985) – A personal favorite, upon which they soar to their loftiest peaks. “Breathtaking” is exactly that. Winstone transcends being a lyricist and becomes a poet, at which she has excelled since, most recently with her own trio. This is the first album to include a Wheeler tune.
HOW IT WAS THEN... NEVER AGAIN (ECM, 1995) – The ensemble's swan song, with a couple of Wheeler tunes and one by Bobo Stenson, as well as a rare Wheeler solo feature, his multi-tracking of Irving Berlin's “How Deep Is The Ocean.” Pretty fucking deep, from the sound of it...
SIREN'S SONG, Maritime Jazz Orchestra (Justin Time, Canada, 1997) – All three members of Azimuth – though not the band itself - are named on the cover and are billed as 'with' The Maritime Jazz Orchestra, director and reedman Greg Carter's 16-piece Halifax-based juggernaut assaying both Taylor’s and Wheeler’s repertoire with an orchestral palette which doth not obscure the trio's own sound. Glorious.
NOW AND NOW AGAIN, Maritime Jazz Orchestra (Justin Time, Canada, 2002) – This time the MJO billing on the front cover is 'featuring' the three, naming them, but, again, not naming Azimuth, presenting even more extended pieces than its predecessor, one by Taylor, three by Wheeler, including a 29+ minute “Sweet Ruby Suite”. This project concluded the trio’s trans-Atlantic adventures.
From long-time colleague and friend Norma Winstone:
Although Kenny’s music has been a part of my life for over 40 years I don’t think it ever lost its magic for me. Standing next to this unassuming man and having the chance to listen to him creating those lines in his improvisation, which always swept me along never able to anticipate where they would finish, was such a gift to me. Then to sing his written lines, always so satisfying to get right, and to try to match my sound with his, was a joy.
A quiet man who could seem distant at times, very shy, absolutely serious about music, whether listening or playing. He listened a great deal to all kinds of music (perhaps not pop!) and would always listen to new music sent him by young musicians and much to their surprise, would often respond with encouraging remarks.
His sound and playing were so original; two notes and you knew it was him. His writing was unusual in its form and use of harmony; again immediately recognisable.I think he was a musical giant and I hate the thought that there won’t be any more new music from him. How wonderful though that we have so much of him still.
As a band member:
It will be an Olympian task for whoever finally compiles a thorough listing of Wheeler's work under the aegis of other bandleaders/colleagues. Some of the best has never appeared on CD, and my list barely touches the Italian labels, where he was prolific far beyond his two leader dates for Soul Note.
LIVE AT RONNIE SCOTT'S, Ronnie Scott and The Band (Columbia, 1968) – This octet set the stage afire, and no wonder, when one considers the roster: joining Scott on saxophones are John Surman and Ray Warleigh, while trombonist Chris Pyne and Wheeler comprise the brass, with Ron Mathewson, bass, Tony Oxley on drums, and Gordon Beck on piano and organ. The repertoire includes a couple of Wheeler tunes (one from WINDMILL TILTER) and a couple by Joe Henderson, and the former hold up every bit as sturdily as the latter. Surman and Wheeler are the two who most consistently play their asses off, in delightful ways. A nice slice of upbeat history from an essentially formative era in British jazz.
PAUSE AND THINK AGAIN, John Taylor – (FMR CD reissue 1995). Three of the eight players on pianist Taylor's 1971 debut would eventually coalesce as Azimuth, the seeds of which can be heard here, along with Surman’s soaring soprano all driven by drummer Tony Levin, and latter-day cohorts Sulzmann and Laurence in the ranks. Seriously lyrical stuff. Wheeler is the only musician without a photo in the gatefold cover, perhaps exemplifying his seeming philosophy that modesty is the best policy.
SOUND SUGGESTIONS, George Adams – (ECM, 1979) Triangulating Wheeler with Adams and Heinz Sauer, respectively saxophonists-of-choice for Charles Mingus and Albert Mangelsdorff, was one of the more interesting limbs Manfred Eicher went out on back in the day. Holland and DeJohnette are joined by pianist Richie Beirach on the back line, and things get woolly both there and out front as sparks fly. The five pieces include both the opener “Baba” and closer “A Spire” by Wheeler.
LIFELINES, Arild Andersen – (ECM, 1981, LP only) This quartet recording is one of the most gaping holes in the ECM CD reissue program, not only for Wheeler's worthy contributions but also those of pianist Steve Dobrogosz, from whom not nearly as much has been heard since as should. Add to that the bassist-bandleader’s consistently interesting compositions and his interplay with drummer Paul Motian and you have the makings of a significant musical meeting.
LIVE!, Third Eye - (View, Germany, 1982, LP only) Wheeler, in the company of saxophonists Alan Skidmore and Wilton Gaynair, takes the stage for pianist Rob Van den Broeck's sextet with his longtime mate Ali Haurand on bass and Tony Levin in the drum seat. Side two is nearly 24 minutes of Wheeler's “River Run,” and the joyous energy of this assemblage is infectious. Levin was a force of nature, a useful quality when one is trying to keep up with Skidmore, and Wheeler does.
CONJURATION, Pepper Adams – (Reservoir, 1990) Recorded live in 1983 in New York at Fat Tuesday's, Wheeler rises to the bopping occasion in good form and is in good company with the baritonist and pianist Hank Jones. Blowing sessions are always better when the familiar encounters the unfamiliar in an inviting setting, and having Cannonball’s drummer of choice, Louis Hayes, to propel the lot definitely adds fuel to the fire. There’s only one Wheeler tune, but plenty of great playing and interplay.
THE LOST TAPES, Rena Rama (Amigo, Sweden, 1998) These 1987 recordings put Wheeler and drummer Billy Hart among some of Scandinavia's finest: pianist Bobo Stenson, saxophonist Lennart Aberg and bassist Anders Jormin. Three of the six tunes are Wheeler’s. Described by some as having a 'post-ECM' sound, call it what you like. To me it is the sound of unfettered cameraderie within a creative collective chemistry.
[TOUCHE], Kenny Wheeler and Paul Bley (Justin Time, Canada, 1996) This Canadian expatriates' duo – recorded in Montreal, pianist Bley’s home town - is a summit meeting of sorts but really more of a relatively quiet – and deep – conversation. Both men let their unique individual evolved languages blend into something more universal, with both salty and sweet moments abounding. This is the sort of thing that can make even the usually-humble Canadians proud.
ORDESA, Stan Sulzmann, John Parricelli and Kenny Wheeler (Symbol, UK, 2002) It's an orgy of melody among these kindred spirits, comfortably intimate in their shared explorations. It could be considered a chamber-ish precursor to Wheeler’s final quintet, though the repertoire is shared among the three, plus Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” a timelessly pretty vehicle delicately handled by these three.
FELLINI JAZZ, Enrico Pieranunzi (CAM Jazz, 2003) – There are no Wheeler tunes, but Nino Rota's music assayed by the likes of Wheeler, Potter, bassist Charie Haden and Motian in the company of Rota’s fellow Italian, pianist Pieranunzi, makes this one of the most memorable multinational European recording projects in the post-MPS period. Pieranunzi records prolifically, but seldom with so much august company or attaining such heights.
From another long-time colleague and friend, saxophonist Stan Sulzmann:
Ken was one of those wonderful artists I have been privileged to work with who lift the spirit out of the ordinary. For me, he was like Messiaen or Coltrane. His compositions were instantly recognizable, with their own language of harmony and beautiful melodies. Standing alongside him on the bandstand, I heard solos that more than took my breath away - they made my hair stand on end: the phrasing, the full sound, and the passion. Over the years, rather than becoming more complex, he whittled things down to the pure essentials.
Wheeler's humility was legendary. A possibly in-part apocryphal tale which touches on this arises from an Arts Council tour to the North of England some years ago, the most probable instigators being Mike Gibbs and/or Nick Purnell, likely during the late '80s or early '90s, in which the bus carrying a big band, including Tom Harrell – another man incapable of playing an insincere note - as well as Wheeler among the trumpets, stopped for teatime at a lay-by along the highway. It turned out that the canteen on that side was closed, so all were sent to the matching facility across the way, and it was from the window seats there, overlooking the highway, that some of the other band members, by now enjoying their tea and biscuits, recalled seeing Wheeler and Harrell, still on the far side of the road, establishing new heights in deference, repeatedly motioning to one another “Oh no – after you - I couldn't possibly...”
At the end of our first meeting, at Edmonton’s Jazz City Festival in 1981, Wheeler and I exchanged addresses, and for the next 32 holiday seasons, his was the first Christmas card to arrive, usually around November's end, and always signed “Kenny and Doreen Wheeler”. In 2001, I thought I had finally got the jump on him when, rather than airmailing his card, I brought it with me to his early-December appearance, in Washington DC, and delivered it personally, for which he thanked me, his trademark poker face never flinching as he read the envelope and put it in his trumpet case, then went on about his tasks, preparing for the gig. Upon returning home the next day, I found in my mailbox the season's first card, from the Wheelers, postmarked in London a full week earlier...
Early this year, an official Blue Plaque was unveiled at Wheeler’s long-time home in the Leytonstone district of London. These markers emanate from the UK’s National Jazz Archive, to recognize and celebrate “much loved jazz musicians who contributed greatly to the story of British jazz.” The inscription describes Wheeler as “One of the most influential jazz musicians of the late 20th century.” They got that right.
Words from Kenny:
I don’t say much, but when I do, I don’t say much.
When I’m writing a tune, what I think I’m looking for is something I’m not looking for.
A Remembrance of Kenny Wheeler
by Patrick Hinely
Kenneth Vincent John Wheeler