Kenny Wheeler: A Long Time Ago (ECM 1691)

A Long Time Ago

Kenny Wheeler
A Long Time Ago

Kenny Wheeler flugelhorn
John Taylor piano
John Parricelli guitar
Derek Watkins trumpet
John Barclay trumpet
Henry Lowther trumpet
Ian Hamer trumpet
Pete Beachill trombone
Richard Edwards trombone
Mark Nightingale trombone
Sarah Williams bass trombone
David Stewart bass trombone
Tony Faulkner conductor
Recorded September 1997 and January 1998 at Gateway Studio, Kingston
Engineer: Steve Lowe
Produced by Evan Parker

A Long Time Ago takes another dip into the oceans explored on trumpeter-composer Kenny Wheeler’s Music For Large & Small Ensembles. Yet where that disc moved diaristically from one paragraph to another in an organic stream of consciousness, here the slant is toward Wheeler the essayist, toward his understanding of jazz as a space of melancholy theses.

At the album’s core is pianist John Taylor (whose years of experience with Wheeler in their Azimuth outfit with Norma Winstone bear clear fruit), guitarist John Parricelli (an eclectic talent whose dream of playing with Wheeler was at last realized with this recording), Derek Watkins (one of this project’s prime instigators), and Wheeler himself, who opts exclusively for flugelhorn. Aside from Taylor, there is no percussionist on the roster; only a sizable band of trumpets, trombones, and bass trombones. The resulting sound is multifarious, deep, and quintessentially Wheelerian.

Wheeler is a reassuring protagonist, and as he steps into the verdant morning fields of the album’s eponymous suite, painterly and brimming with feeling, he weaves a nostalgic tapestry of diamonds and circles. Between the lush arrangement and the synergistic nexus maintained by Taylor and Parricelli, the tone is generally somber and wood-grained. This does not, however, keep Wheeler from coloring outside the lines as the mood strikes him. These bright, squealing breaches are all the more vivid for their intermittence. “One Plus Three,” of which a second version ends the set on its most somber note, boasts further abstract moments in a distinct, naked voice.

If the album as a whole feels elegiac, then this feeling is brought home tenfold in “Ballad for a Dead Child,” a dirge which after a funereal intro opens into expansive duetting from Wheeler and Taylor. As the horns at large blend back in, they combine the here with the hereafter. While on a lonely train ride through twilit landscape in “Eight Plus Three,” the lively dream of “Alice My Dear” cracks its first smile. It is a smile of appreciation that sends positive energy into “Going for Baroque.” The latter has the quality of a royal fanfare and reveals the Renaissance sources that have long inspired Wheeler’s pen. It is also a vaulting segue into the “Gnu Suite,” which finds material from Wheeler’s ECM debut, Gnu High, dramatically re-imagined.

Wheeler is the photographer who, in a digital age, still prefers to step into a dark room, close the door, and let his music develop. His images embrace imperfections as a means of balancing all that is in focus. And so, while this is an album for brass lovers at heart and deserves a spot on any ECM collector’s shelf right next to the Surman/Warren Brass Project, it is also a prime example of how sound can transcend its means and become its own story.

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