Kenny Wheeler: Angel Song (ECM 1607)

Kenny Wheeler
Angel Song

Kenny Wheeler trumpet, flugelhorn
Lee Konitz alto saxophone
Bill Frisell guitar
Dave Holland double-bass
Recorded February 1996, Power Station, New York
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

For my first ECM review after the birth of my son, I decided to return to an old favorite. As one of the label’s deepest accomplishments in all respects, the generative spirit of Angel Song breathes like the life that has cast new light onto mine. Now that I hear everything through the lens of a fatherhood never known to me before, yet which is now as lucid as the quivering of a crying newborn, I discover something so poignant in “Nicolette” as can be matched only by the love of parent for child. This first of nine Wheeler originals bears every hallmark that makes Angel Song such a statuesque experience. From the soulful theme to the sheer depth of listening on part of the musicians and engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug, the interweaving of audible and inaudible elements sets an already high bar and builds a soft ladder from there.

The title of the album’s final track, “Kind Of Gentle,” is also its mode. It is a lulling and unwavering effect that cradles us in nebulae of memory. We dream, back to the cribs and crooks in which we all once drifted, all the while guided by a formidable foursome: Lee Konitz on alto sax, Dave Holland on bass, Bill Frisell on guitar, and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler in the lead. Absence of drums lends the music stretch and comfort, wrapping the metaphorical child of its creation in swaddle. The reed is paramount in this stretch of dawn-lit midnight, sealing every crevice of the album’s fragile architecture as securely as mother’s arms. Like a quiet vessel it cuts a V through the reflected sky, leaving the shores of “Present Past” and touching down on “Past Present.” And in “Nonetheless” his tone drips like honey from a comb. Holland, for his part, adds pliancy, pulling signature lines through such tracks as “Kind Folk” and “Unti.” Frisell also excels in both, peeling stretches of glitter from his restrained backdrops with the nimbleness of Peter Pan’s shadow. Each of his solos is a spider’s web trembling at our listening. As for Wheeler, he has never sounded more verdant, painting the landscapes of the title track and the relatively upbeat “Onmo” with the intensity of a thunderbolt yet the almost-not-there-ness of a dandelion puff.

Recorded in the winter of 1996 yet effusive with body heat, this is music that exhales one timeless theme after another. Perhaps because it was also my first exposure to Wheeler, I mark it as one of his very best. Even in the absence of comparison, it soothes, taking me back to the events of one week ago and the overwhelming unity that has held me since. After the fever dream that was his coming into this world, my son absorbed the light of his first morning as might a leaf drink from the sun. Behind him, the fears that beset any parent-to-be; before him, the safety now manifested in my waiting arms. I seek to magnify that tranquility in this music, and hope it may do the same whenever you find yourself in the presence of a miracle.

My son at 5 days old

6 thoughts on “Kenny Wheeler: Angel Song (ECM 1607)

  1. I wish you and your family all of the joys we hope your son brings your family. I share your passion for both family and music, and I cannot think of any music which reflects the breadth of life than the music produced by ECM.

  2. Another beautiful review. I specifically enjoy when a reviewer of music gets personal with the music-what it means to him, how he “uses” it in his life, the place it has in his life, etc.I have to wonder, as your lucky son will grow up hearing many of these wonderful ECM discs as part of the soundtrack of his young life, what his experience may be when he gets into young adulthood. I wonder will he himself revisit many of these recordings and what the affect it will have on him then as the music triggers memories of his own past. That would be a fascinating thing to be able to behold…

  3. I am so happy to see this review (and a wonderful review it is), since this is easily on our top 10 ECM releases ever list. I really can’t add any more…except that this is essential listening!

  4. That’s a lovely review. Your boy will be not so tiny or peaceful now, I bet. I wonder if this music takes you back to those early days of default-obliterating wonder? Or maybe it’s grown up along with your boy, revealing new things in itself and reflecting new things in you as the years pass by. Music can be like fatherhood in that sense. Very best wishes to you and yours.

    1. Thank you so much, Ben. I would say both, actually. I look back to those days (or that daze?) with even greater wonder and have been blessed to find that music is always there to grow with me.

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