Kenny Wheeler: Music For Large & Small Ensembles (ECM 1415/16)

Kenny Wheeler
Music For Large & Small Ensembles

Kenny Wheeler fluegelhorn, trumpet
John Abercrombie guitar
John Taylor piano
Dave Holland bass
Peter Erskine drums
Norma Winstone vocal
Derek Watkins trumpet
Henry Lowther trumpet
Alan Downey trumpet
Ian Hamer trumpet
Dave Horler trombone
Chris Pyne trombone
Paul Rutherford trombone
Hugh Fraser trombone
Ray Warleigh saxophones
Duncan Lamont saxophones
Evan Parker saxophones
Julian Argüelles saxophones
Stan Sulzmann tenor saxophone, flute
Recorded January and February 1990 at CTS Studio, London (Large Ensembles) and Rainbow Studio, Oslo (Small Ensembles)
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler had been writing for jazz orchestra for three decades before this recording, criminally the only of its kind widely available at the time, was released. With a cast list (mostly veterans of the London jazz scene) to make one swoon, ECM’s first release of the 1990s raised the bar on production, arrangement, composition, and musicianship that had been the label’s prime tenets since its inception in 1969.

It’s easy to praise Wheeler as player, but on Music For Large & Small Ensembles we are given a smorgasbord of his delectable talents as composer. This massive two-disc set begins with The Sweet Time Suite in eight parts. While the cradle of horns in which it opens sounds more like a closing, it is nevertheless coaxing and lovely. In Part II, however, we are introduced to the album’s major running thread: namely, the voice of Norma Winstone, who provides a crystal lining to every motif and, along with guitarist John Abercrombie, adds a Pat Metheny-like charm to many of the darker hues. The roundedness thereof is offset by the added punch of horns, giving us something doubly engaging. Stan Sulzmann’s heady tenor floats up and down the improvisatory ladder with unbound attention and primes us for Winstone’s unparalleled tintinnabulations in Part III. Although Part IV bears dedication to baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, it’s Evan Parker’s tenor that gets all the attention. Walking a fiery tightrope woven of guitar and cymbals, he navigates a swinging rhythm section toward Dave Holland’s quiet solo at the bass—an exemplary display of dynamic control into the sultry ending. Part V is another audible smile that features fine commentary from pianist John Taylor. Abercrombie’s own sensitive turn opens like an embrace warmed by sunshine. Winstone fashions Part VI into a lullaby, wafting through the air like a folk song into the thermals of altoist Ray Warleigh’s stunning flight. Part VII starts with what at first appears to be unnecessary distraction, only to reveal a profound dialogue between Peter Erskine’s drumming and the round of solos that embraces it. Wheeler’s fluegelhorn is especially engaging here and carries us with quiet confidence into a plush finish.

The second disc is a hefty selection of standalone originals. Of these, the opening “Sophie” is perhaps Wheeler’s finest. The pianism here shines like the sun alongside the joyous cymbal work. But it is the gorgeous baritone solo from Julian Argüellas, along with Wheeler’s own distinctive song, that truly makes this a standout in the collection. It is heavy yet flowing, dancing like fire without the threat of destruction. “Sea Lady” awakens with Parker’s avian reeds, sounding like a Philip Glass riff gone beautifully awry, and brings Winstone’s tender words into the mix at last. Through these she unties a knot with unrequited love and steeps its expectations in shadow. Abercrombie’s own ruminations presage Sulzmann’s forlorn twittering on flute and Wheeler’s vivid narrative. “Gentle Piece” is exactly that, all the more so for Holland’s soft spots and Taylor’s unobtrusive wanderings. Winstone’s lilting motives, wordless yet ever meaningful, speak like the voice of the sun in a dream without light. Another memorable alto solo from Warleigh promises wakefulness before the outro. The album’s remainder is taken up by two phenomenal trio conversation pieces with Wheeler, Holland, and Erskine, and a series of duets between Erskine and Taylor before closing out on the 10.5-minute masterpiece, “By Myself.” Abercrombie jumps through every hoop spun before him, setting off an enlivening round of solos that brings us into Wheeler’s final gesture of exuberance, by which he successfully concludes one of the most ambitious projects of his career.

Music For Large & Small Ensembles offers lush insight into one of jazz’s most exciting musical minds. This is music at the peak of ripeness, bearing fruit for all. It also boasts some of Steve Lake’s best liner notes, which make the physical product worth far more than any digital download available.

<< Edward Vesala: Ode To The Death Of Jazz (ECM 1413)
>> Kenny Wheeler Quintet: The Widow In The Window (ECM 1417)

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