Kenny Wheeler: Songs for Quintet (ECM 2388)

Songs for Quintet

Kenny Wheeler
Songs for Quintet

Kenny Wheeler flugelhorn
Stan Sulzmann tenor saxophone
John Parricelli guitar
Chris Laurence double bass
Martin France drums
Recorded December 2013 and mixed September 2014 at Abbey Road Studios, London
Engineer: Andrew Dudman
Assistant: Toby Hulbert
Mastering: Frank Arkwright
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Steve Lake

The late trumpet/flugelhorn virtuoso and composer Kenny Wheeler was one of jazz’s most beloved musicians and every album he recorded for ECM was an event to be savored—and now more than ever with Songs for Quintet. Wheeler’s last recording nestles some classics in mostly newer material and is a departure for the label in being recorded at London’s legendary Abbey Road Studios, where he is joined by longtime friends tenor saxophonist Stan Sulzmann, guitarist John Parricelli, bassist Chris Laurence, and drummer Martin France.

KW

Given the way that “Seventy-Six” eases its way into the heart, you can be sure this is a Wheeler record. Like “The Long Waiting” later in the set, it rests on a foundation of bass and guitar, on which the band builds its togetherness. Within this mesh, Parricelli slings his guitar solo like a comfortable leather bag that conforms to the body from years of regular use. In both tracks, Sulzmann’s tenor is another remarkable voice, shadowing Wheeler’s own lyrical fronting without stepping on their toes. In fact, he and the rest are in obvious deference to their leader’s coolness.

Two blasts from the past, buffed to a reflective shine, enrich the album with their inclusion. “Old Time,” last heard as “How It Was Then” on the 1995 Azimuth album of the same name, is among the groovier numbers. Sulzmann and Wheeler share soaring harmonies over some prime rhythm sectionining: France an ambassador of finesse and Laurence of nimble eccentricities. And one of ECM’s finest jazz albums of all time, Angel Song, gets a nod in “Nonetheless,” a deserving self-tribute now shed of its shadows in the presence of brighter cymbals and guitar. Sulzmann’s wings catch thermal after thermal in a space that Wheeler might once have claimed on Gnu High. The saxophonist’s true standout track, though, is “Sly Eyes,” a luscious tango that is all the wiser for its bassing. “Pretty Liddle Waltz” is another robust dance.

The cryptically titled “1076” is champagne in a bottle, by which is christened a scuttling vessel. Like “Jigsaw,” its elements interlock seamlessly. The latter tune is slick in that distinctly Wheelerian way and spotlights a musician with a lot on his mind. By his gentle yet forthright tone, Wheeler serves no pretense but the down-home profundity of his vision. Even as his younger sidemen paint sunbursts overhead, he is content to strip his cottage and repaint its walls in variations of that same comfortable shade. In keeping with the rural theme, “Canter No. 1” begins with a relaxed bass solo, from which Wheeler spins an enchanting story. Each chord change becomes a rope swing in his hands as he suspends his peerless language over childhood rivers toward fuller throttle.

Not only is this as fine a swan song as one could hope for; it’s also fantastic album in and of itself. Were one to approach it not knowing the personnel involved, it would sound just as poignant, for its strength lies first and foremost in the writing: a mark of greatness, if ever there was one.

(To hear samples of Songs for Quintet, click here.)

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.

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

Kenny Wheeler Quintet: The Widow In The Window (ECM 1417)

 

Kenny Wheeler Quintet
The Widow In The Window

Kenny Wheeler fluegelhorn, trumpet
John Abercrombie guitar
John Taylor piano
Dave Holland bass
Peter Erskine drums
Recorded February 1990 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

One month after the crowning success of his Music For Large & Small Ensembles, trumpeter/composer Kenny Wheeler gathered a handful of stars therefrom—namely, guitarist John Abercrombie, pianist John Taylor, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer Peter Erskine—into this more succinct yet equally classic date. Abercrombie lays down a particularly soulful beauty in the opening “Aspire,” the first in a program of six Wheeler originals, and sends the frontman’s uncompromising insights into thoughtful ether with the stretch of a trampoline. A solo of sweeping intimacy from Taylor showcases further sensitivity among a quintet so attuned that it might as well be doing this while asleep. We do, of course, find ourselves wide awake in the dazzling light of “Ma Belle Hélène.” One by one, Abercrombie unwraps his charms like the sonic candies they are. Wheeler, meanwhile, adds feathers to the session’s growing wings, uncorking a rush of unbridled melody that elicits one of Holland’s most heartfelt solos on record against some of the cleverest cymbals in the business. A graceful pass from Taylor puts the waxen seal on this love letter to sunlit streets and alleyways. The title track begins with a longing cry from Wheeler, who finds in its descending motives a narrative of spun of cloth and time. Profundity abounds in this solo-sphere, Holland especially drawing inimitable shapes into the fogged mirror of memory, wiping away melancholy away as if it were a dust bunny blown out of sight by a sigh. “Ana” receives a more nuanced treatment here than it did on Wheeler’s outing with the Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra. That same modal intro speaks, sounding more than ever like a soundtrack to a film yet to be made. After a theme articulated in shadows, Erskine and Taylor turn to the light. Abercrombie positively dances on air and, along with Wheeler, carries us into the depths of hope. The swinging “Hotel Le Hot” finds the latter at his bubbling best, cresting the flames of surrender with every squeal. This cut is also noticeable for Erskine’s dizzying flavors. “Now, And Now Again” ends things in a gently rocking cradle for which Wheeler lays on the lyricism thick. Taylor charts the earth where once he stepped, where in his place now hovers only a sonorous ghost of what used to be.

Those who count themselves a fan of Wheeler, ECM, or boundary-crossing jazz in general can chalk this one as unmissable.

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.

Kenny Wheeler: Double, Double You (ECM 1262)

 

Kenny Wheeler
Double, Double You

Kenny Wheeler trumpet, fluegelhorn
Michael Brecker tenor saxophone
John Taylor piano
Dave Holland bass
Jack DeJohnette drums
Recorded May 1983 at Power Station, New York
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

One can always count on trumpeter Kenney Wheeler for three things: (1) rounded writing contrasted with pointed soloing, (2) an always-engaging sound, whether alone or surrounded by a large band, and (3) a perfect marriage with ECM production values. For this modest set, we get two epic cuts bookending two shorter ones, and the results do not disappoint. As if having the talents of Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, and Mike Brecker along for the ride weren’t enough, Wheeler is also joined by John Taylor, whose sweeping pianism tempers the trumpeter’s fire just enough to keep it from scalding us, and whose resplendence could alone carry the album. The potent lyricism of the entire congregation is on full display in “Foxy Trot.” Holland and DeJohnette bring on their own heat, as well as a live, exuberant energy to the proceedings that provides an ideal carpet of hot coals for Brecker’s carefully measured walk. After an unremarkable duet between Wheeler and Taylor (“Ma Bel”), he and Brecker spin a duet in “W. W.” that bowls us over once the rhythm section kicks in. The two horns are superbly attuned here, and Brecker in particular in his soaring solo, which burns up all of its available oxygen and leaves Holland to dance among the ashes. Last is a triptych of compositions that begins in bliss with Brecker and Taylor, wrought through by Wheeler’s sunshine and the glistening accents of DeJohnette and Holland. We also get an effervescent solo from Taylor, who draws the curtains around us like a silo of intimate memories. Wheeler’s resolutions seem to trace a life of contented solitude and bring closure to an album of high energy.

Wheeler hits his stride at every turn with his unabashed brand of exposition, which defines new sonic territory with every project. One could easy gush at length about his lyricism, but on this album we also get an even clearer sense his rhythmic sensibilities. Ignore the filler of “Ma Bel,” and you have an almost perfect album.

Kenny Wheeler: around 6 (ECM 1156)

around 6

Kenny Wheeler
around 6

Kenny Wheeler trumpet, fluegelhorn
Evan Parker soprano and tenor saxophones
Eje Thelin trombone
Tom van der Geld vibraharp
Jean-Francois Jenny-Clark double-bass
Edward Vesala drums
Recorded August 1979 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

For his third ECM outing as leader, Kenny Wheeler offers up this set of six originals among some of the finest support ECM had to offer at recording time. The reed-work of Evan Parker in particular proves to be a prophetic addition to Wheeler’s rounded edges.

Like the wordplay of first cut (“Mai We Go Round”) the album as a whole is twice removed: once from the immediate expectations born of past projects, and once more from the often earthly shapes of those projects. This time around, Wheeler is happy to tiptoe over the clouds, reaching for the sun that illuminates their cauliflower topsides. A pliant intro urges us down the rhythmic paths of J.F. Jenny-Clark (bass) and Tom van der Geld (vibes), along which Wheeler crafts the tenderest of songs. At heart a lullaby, it is lively on the surface, so that we always remain half awake, our eyes glazed by an interest in the musical moment. All of this stretches a diffuse canvas across which Parker splashes the enchanting wisdom of an aurora borealis in fast forward. After this dip into limpid waters, Wheeler breaks out the gorgeous ”Solo One.” Floating on a studio echo with great care, his tone is tender yet immovable, and moves like a human body after an epic recovery. “May Ride” lays another solid foundation between bass and vibes and the subterranean patter of Edward Vesala on drums. Wheeler stays fairly centered, letting out the occasional squeal, and sets up a fantastic solo—one of the album’s best—from trombonist Eje Thelin. After a few doodles from the horns, “Follow Down” unfolds in a parabolic blade, thereby tilling a nutrient-rich soil for Parker’s brilliance. Vibes curl their reverberant fingers alluringly along the edge of our attention before horns and arco bass fall into line. A splash of water dispels our reveries in the propulsive “Riverrun.” Wheeler and Thelin swing from every branch with an unwavering sense of play, granting Vesala a few moments in the spotlight before ending tenderly, conservatively, with the ballad “Lost Woltz.”

A lush and consistent album, around 6 takes on a life of its own with every listen, and deserves a place in any self-respecting jazz collection.

around 6 alternate
Alternate cover

Kenny Wheeler: Deer Wan (ECM 1102)

 

Kenny Wheeler
Deer Wan

Kenny Wheeler trumpet, fluegelhorn
Jan Garbarek saxophones
John Abercrombie electric guitar, electric mandolin
Dave Holland bass
Jack DeJohnette drums
Ralph Towner 12-string guitar
Recorded July 1977 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Among Kenny Wheeler’s cleverly punned titles, Deer Wan takes the cake. For his second ECM album as headliner, the prodigious trumpeter/fluegelhornist serves up a set of four originals—three long and one short—sure to enliven any morning routine or Sunday afternoon alike. The top-shelf cast reads like a who’s who of ECM’s best and brightest: Jan Garbarek on saxophones, John Abercrombie on electrics, Dave Holland on bass, Ralph Towner on his ever-present 12-string, and Jack DeJohnette at the drums. Wrap this in the splendid engineering of Jan Erik Kongshaug and you get unquestionable sonic bliss.

The 16.5-minute “Peace For Five” is an album in itself and provides an ideal launching pad for Wheeler’s astonishing lyricism. A somber aside from Holland and not-so-somber acrobatics from Abercrombie and Garbarek all contribute to a richly flowing tapestry in this epic opener. Wheeler and company tear a page from the book of Enrico Rava with “3/4 In The Afternoon.” Like a stroll through lush gardens, one finds in it a veritable ecosystem of visual and melodic ideas, compressed into a single brass-gilded flower. Towner’s reverberant plush underscores the warmth within. As we swing over into night with “Sumother Song,” Garbarek’s liquid tenor evaporates into its own swan song with only a tinkling of cymbals to mark where it once stood. But this, we soon discover, is only a pause before DeJohnette’s beautifully corrugated rhythms unfold beneath a soaring fluegelhorn. After a windy introduction, the title track quickly weaves itself into an upbeat welcome mat on which we wipe our feet as if after a long journey. Buffeted soloing all around brings us full circle to a state of renewed appreciation for that which we’ve always known.

Deer Wan is an unsung masterpiece of smooth jazz with just enough sharp edges to leave an unforgettable scar or two. A most endearing album for those who like a shot of whiskey in their musical coffee.

Azimuth (ECM 1546-48)

Azimuth

John Taylor piano, organ, synthesizer
Norma Winstone voice
Kenny Wheeler trumpet, fluegelhorn
Ralph Towner 12-string and classical guitars

Azimuth:
1. The arc of the horizon measured clockwise from the south point, in astronomy, or from the north point, in navigation, to the point where a vertical circle through a given heavenly body intersects the horizon.
2. A group made up of vocalist Norma Winstone, husband John Taylor on keyboards, and trumpeter/fluegelhornist Kenny Wheeler whose music, measured from any point, draws an arc through countless heavenly bodies before intersecting with the enchanted listener.

Azimuth was (and remains) emblematic of the ECM label, marking its timelines from 1977 to 2000 with a handful of indelible punctuations. The group’s characteristically expansive sound was overshadowed only by its utter commitment to the melodic line and the trustworthiness of its expression. In the three albums collected for this timely rerelease, the journeys upon which we are taken are the same as those taken by the musicians themselves. Such immediate correspondence is a rare achievement in any vertical circle, and is to be cherished for its productive honesty.

Azimuth (ECM 1099)
Recorded March 1977 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The group that would become Azimuth began its journey on this self-titled album. “Siren’s Song” rests on the forgiving laurels of a repeated motif, gilded by a horn-flanked voice amid pianistic accents. Like a Steve Reich riff dropped in a pool of jazz, it treats the pulse as the animating force of its creation. Wheeler broadens Winstone’s palette in the melodic relays of “O.” The title track is buoyed by a stunningly gorgeous arpeggiator, over which Winstone sets to flight a pair of overdubbed birds. Once they have flown away, Wheeler draws between their pinpointed forms a sinuous trajectory, along which one is able to chart the album’s path with even more fluid precision. The synthetic backdrop builds in scope, turning what might otherwise be a repetitive New Age loop into an elegiac improvisational exercise. The plaintive piano introduction of “The Tunnel” extends this supportive electricity, into which Winstone begins to sow her potent words. Semantics trail off into further meanderings, reminiscent of the previous track, before the backdrop morphs into a stunning change of key. This makes “Greek Triangle,” a curious piece for brass, all the more whimsical for its appearance. Though outwardly incongruous, it breathes with the same focused spirit that animates the whole, thereby elevating it beyond the status of fanciful diversion. It also serves to refresh our palette for the lyricism of “Jacob,” in which Winstone’s braids and Wheeler’s fluid accents close an altogether fascinating mosaic of atmospheres.


Original cover

The Touchstone (ECM 1130)
Recorded June, 1978 at Talent Studio
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Azimuth’s second ECM effort is also the group’s most enigmatic. The organ that underlies “Eulogy” gives just enough air for Wheeler to glide, and injects all that follows with deep, warm breath. The trio writes a more intimate letter in “Silver,” answered in the unsteady penmanship of “Mayday,” over which our soloists take great care to dot every i and cross every t. The distant muted trumpets of “Jero” mesh with Winstone’s ambulatory menageries. Taylor draws a fluid line through their incantations, ignoring the periphery all the way to the end of “Prelude,” a track so lovely that it makes one want to listen to the album backwards. This is an elusive set, to be sure, filled with quiet, seething power, but also one that builds its nests comfortably over our heads. It can only fly, because it knows no other way to travel.


Original cover

Départ (ECM 1163)
Recorded December 1979 at Talent Studios, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

For its third outing, Azimuth welcomed the strings of guitarist Ralph Towner. “The Longest Day” opens in Solstice territory, setting out through a drizzle of piano and 12-string. Winstone’s overdubs visualize gossamer veils of more distant storms, while Wheeler’s soulful trumpet shines like the sun beyond them. Winstone takes her voice to unexpected heights, pulling a banner of time across the sky into the contemplative piano introduction of “Autumn.” There is no falling. Rather, we get the stillness of those leaves before they die, hanging on with their last vestments of color as the winds arrive to shake them from their boughs. Winstone hangs words in the air amid Towner’s almost pianistic fingerings and Wheeler’s staccato cries. “Arrivée” is just that, but is one of many destinations in this sojourn. Incising solos leave their wounds, closed at last by the plasma of Winstone’s mellifluous protractions. This is followed by a quartet of so-called “Touching Points,” which further extrapolate vocal information from instrumental sources, and vice versa. Wordless fibers are at once spun and frayed in passages of intense physicality. Towner is put to improvisatory task, adding tentative yet appropriate ornaments of his own. The organ drone of the title track respires beneath Winstone’s dips into thermal bliss. Words spread their branches, wrought in tinsel and blown glass. The album ends with a reprise of “The Longest Day” for piano alone. Resplendent and far-reaching, it is a bittersweet ending to Azimuth’s most fully realized effort, through which the project honed its sound to an art.


Original cover

Azimuth was one of ECM’s most deftly realized acts, and it continues to open like a slow cloudburst every time I immerse myself in it. Its malleable formula provides seemingly endless room for possibility. Winstone’s voice sparkles in the soft focus of consistently sensitive production, a slowly flapping bird with nowhere to go but up. She and Taylor are ideal partners, forging as they do a silent smolder of emotional bonds, while Wheeler heaves his own powerful feathers with conviction. The brief addition of Tower heightens their collective sound, even as it tethers them to the earth. This is a classic set of three seminal albums, each a movement in a larger suite, where souls can dance in motions so slow that they appear as still as ice, and are just as vulnerable to heat.