In a revealing quotation, Canadian expat composer/flugelhorn player Kenny Wheeler once said: “Sad music makes me feel happy. My favourite people in Jazz are the ones who sound a bit sad. Billie Holiday, Miles Davis.” Those influences can be heard most clearly in Wheeler’s most recent music, in which traces of sadness inflect the tonal alloy of his own inimitable sound.
Where some aesthetes admire the supple phrasing of the young Billie Holiday, others (like me) are more affected by the admittedly coarser, yet also more fragile and emotive qualities of her voice as she neared the end of a troubled like. Now, the self-effacing Wheeler no doubt led a quieter life, but the same holds true of his own tonality in later years often affected by illness. And Wheeler, unlike Holiday, ‘sings’ through his own songs, as arranged for a devoted and sympathetic band.
Songs for Quintet was recorded in December 2013, in London’s Abbey Road Studio. Wheeler, by now into his eighth decade, may be slightly more brittle on the flugelhorn than in earlier years, but his emotional intelligence, as conveyed by the analytical melancholia characteristic of his sound, is still readily identifiable. Sadly, this will be his last recording, since Wheeler died in September 2014. Its release coincides with what would have been the week of his 85th birthday, on January 14, 2015.
Proper Note’s press release is spot-on with its description of Wheeler’s tunes as “beautiful and slyly unorthodox”, and no other group could better convey that unassuming unorthodoxy than this Quintet. In tenor saxophonist Stan Sulzmann, Wheeler found not only an ideal instrumental foil, but also a de facto bandleader; the bass/drums partnership of Chris Laurence and Martin France have an impeccable, seemingly intuitive understanding; and guitarist John Parricelli adds extra harmonic dimensions to the group sound.
This was, and remains, an exemplary working group, and with it Wheeler refined the sound of his mature phase. Nevertheless, they have been under-recorded, and although Londoners frequently had opportunity to hear the Quintet in concert, Wheeler usually chose to record in other, often one-off combinations; anything from intimate duets to big band recordings or more muscular, improvisatory small groups, notably those including Paul Dunmall and Tony Levin. Wheeler’s last small-group studio session, Six for Six (2008, CAM Jazz), dropped Parricelli in favour of Bobby Wellins’ tenor sax and John Taylor on piano.
Parricelli’s sound, limpid but often rich in harmonics, is a defining characteristic of this Quintet, and sometimes his effect can be almost – almost – too tasteful. On the guitarist’s brief, spare, and inarguably lovely introduction to lead track “Seventy-Six”, Laurence’s double bass adds judicious low-end counterpoint; and then, after brief unison horn fanfares, it’s Parricelli’s guitar that ripples its serpentine way through a gentle, Latin swing feel imparted by the rhythm section. The horns return to highlight the melody in bold, but the overall effect is wistful.
The emphasis here is on the song: Where the Quintet yield so completely to the music, it’s easy to overlook the pliability of Wheeler’s compositions, and the intensity in the restraint of the Quintet.
Intensity is more apparent in the group’s relaxed potency on the free-flowing but elusively intricate “Jigsaw”, while Sulzmann’s full-bodied soloing fires the group on “Canter No. 1”. The saxophonist also introduces the brief “1076” with a hint of Ayleresque passion, but he’s kept in check by the naive melodic sensibility of Wheeler’s theme, which Parricelli stretches with complex chords and sustain before it’s picked up by the ebb-and-surge momentum of France’s drumming.
Wheeler’s sound on “The Long Waiting”, a composition last heard on the big band recording of the same name (2012, CAM Jazz), recalls that of Uan Rasey on Jerry Goldsmith’s melancholic “Love Theme From Chinatown (End Title)”: it’s a comparison that often comes to my mind with Wheeler. He’s similarly vulnerable and melancholic on the otherwise steadily pulsing “Old Time”, which his Azimuth trio recorded, with vocals by Norma Winstone, as “How it was Then”, on the 1994 album of the same name. Another revisitation, “Nonetheless” was first heard on Angel Song (ECM, 1997), as interpreted by a drummer-less quartet that included Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell and Dave Holland. The other six pieces here are all new.
“Sly Eyes” is a waltz of sorts, the front line sounding archly aloof, and everyone’s postures stiffened by a recurring martial motif rapped out on France’s snare drum. “Pretty Liddle Waltz” also suggests a piece, but it’s a beguilingly spacious performance with Wheeler and Sulzmann trading phrases that flow from conversation to unhurried, thoughtful exposition. Parricelli also plays a beautifully atmospheric solo, which he matches with songlike eloquence on the more free-flowing “Nonetheless”
Songs for Quintet sits comfortably alongside Wheeler’s classic albums for ECM such as Gnu High (1975) – Keith Jarrett’s last session under another leader) – and Music For Large And Small Ensembles (1990). It’s more intimate than either of those expansive works, but by no means inward looking. The Quintet knew Wheeler and his music intimately, as he knew them, and the music they made together is full of the richness of intimacy. Songs for Quintet is a powerful and moving culmination of a significant body of work.
Kenny Wheeler flugelhorn; Stan Sulzmann tenor saxophone; John Parricelli guitar; Chris Laurence double bass; Martin France drums.
Kenny Wheeler Quintet at The Vortex, London, March 2012
Buy Songs for Quintet direct from ECM.