Kenny Wheeler Quintet at The Vortex

The Vortex, London
27 March 2012

It’s always a joy, seeing Kenny Wheeler. There’s something about his music, his qualities as a player, the excellent company he keeps and of course the man himself that just radiates positivity. At 82, Wheeler still leads cutting-edge groups such as this latest quintet in regular live performances to full houses, and his well-honed act just keeps maturing in its vintage. The key lies in his distinctive sound, as an expression of his inimitable compositional voice.

I had the pleasure of a brief chat with Wheeler’s wife, Doreen, who was at the Vortex with their son Mark. She told me that the trumpeter still practices and devotes hours each day to composing, and still gets impatient if the inspiration doesn’t flow. The fruits are ours to enjoy.

Wheeler was born in Canada in 1930. He relocated to the UK in the 50s, and has since become a vital presence on the British jazz scene. His playing has a yearning, plangent quality that makes his soloing deeply affecting. He may not have the steely chops and air-tight embouchure of his younger days, but he has lost none of his ability to develop and sustain an eloquent solo or to play effectively in the searching higher registers of the flugelhorn. Mostly though he‘s a past-master of finely-honed lyrical meditations. The flugelhorn may be the trumpet’s more pensive cousin, but Wheeler can still make it ring out sonorously whenever his compositions tumble into upbeat post-bop.

The role of bandleader and MC for the evening is delegated Wheeler’s established right-hand man, a bandleader in his own right, tenor saxophonist Stan Sulzmann. Since Wheeler often composes with big bands in mind (his last album was a big band release), Sulzmann’s experience as a veteran of large ensembles led by such as Mike Gibbs, John Taylor, Phil Woods and Clark Terry has made him a vital enabler in the expression of Wheeler’s mature works.

Drummer Martin France and Bassist Chris Laurence have also been members of the quintet for a number of years. The only notable change is the substitution of pianist Gwilym Simcock for guitarist and composer John Parricelli, which shifts the music away from shimmering harmonic suspension and emphasises its bounce. Although Simcock, a member of Stan Sulzmann’s Neon, is relatively youthful, he has a formidable reputation bolstered by both a “creative genius” endorsement from Chick Corea and a Mercury Award nomination.

The quintet began their first set with Wheeler’s signature composition, “Kind Folk”, from his Music for Large and Small Ensembles album. Simcock’s harp-like thrumming of the grand piano’s strings meshed with France’s warm brush strokes – a bold yet subtle touch. Wheeler, though not initially as steady or steely of tone as in his prime, played with feeling and gravitas.

Stan Sulzmann made his mark on the up-tempo “Jigsaw” with a magnificent tenor solo, blending authority with subtlety in the way that only a great middleweight sax player can (think Hank Mobley or John Lloyd). Wheeler responded with some heat, pushed along by the insistent rhythm section, and matched Sulzmann’s energy again with a lengthy, eloquent solo during “A Simple Toon”. And in the ballad “The Long Waiting”, the title track from that new Big Band album, he surpassed expectation, punctuating his lyrical solo with trademark smears and declamations in a constricted, burred altissimo.

The quintet ended their first set with “Old Time”, which Wheeler originally recorded with Azimuth in the early 90s. Its melody has something of the Latin feel common to Blue Note classics like “The Sidewinder”, but away from the head arrangement the piece was notable for a dynamic piano trio interlude, powered by France’s tight but volatile drumming.

Set two began with Wheeler at his most plaintive, introducing a version of “Nicolette” from his classic Angel Song album (ECM, 1997). The body of the set was given over to versions of “All By Myself” (not the Linkin Park song, nor the one by Lil Wayne; think Irving Berlin) and Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk”. After the exertions of the first set, Wheeler sat out for long stretches, as the quintet took their head and powered along like a well-oiled and graceful machine. The Monk composition was effectively a vehicle for extended solos, with Simcock particularly outstanding. He played with the sure touch of Bill Evans and something of Keith Jarrett’s élan and energy, particularly during “Mark Time” (a dedication to Wheeler’s son), in a wonderful narrative duet against France’s exuberant drumming.

When introducing Wheeler’s classic “Everybody’s Song But My Own” as the band’s final number, Sulzmann drew a knowing laugh from the Vortex audience with a cheeky, off-the cuff comment about his saxophone: “It used to be Evan Parker’s”, he quipped; “I can’t make it play any tunes”. But the band proceeded to demonstrate, yet again, just how ironic both that joke and Wheeler’s song title are. This is a phenomenal band, which evidently relishes playing the tunes from Wheeler’s incomparable songbook.

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