Kenny Wheeler - Songs for Quintet - ECM 2388



Born in Toronto but based in England from 1952, Kenny Wheeler was, by the late 1960s, a highly regarded figure on the London scene, living a sort of double life – as a post-bop trumpeter and flugelhorn player inspired by Clifford Brown and Art Farmer and as a pioneering free player moving into unexplored territory in the company of improvisers including John Stevens, Evan Parker, Dave Holland and Derek Bailey. Jazz tradition and free experimentation would intermingle in Kenny’s palette as player and composer. As he put it, “the free stuff relaxed my conventional playing and the conventional playing gave shape to my free soloing”, and ideas discovered in improvising, especially a fondness for intervallic leaps, were subsequently deployed in his pieces. He cited Duke Ellington, Gil Evans and Stan Kenton as formative influences on his writing but also listened closely to classical and contemporary composition. Gesualdo, Debussy and Hindemith were favourites.

Wheeler often said that Hindemith’s harmonies reminded him of McCoy Tyner. In his own writing, melody was the core, and he always found new ways to frame it, harmonically and rhythmically. In terms of emotional atmosphere, he found melancholy cheering. “Sad music makes me feel happy”, he said. “My favourite people in jazz are the ones who sound a bit sad. Billie Holiday, Miles Davis.”

Wheeler first came to ECM’s attention in 1970 when Chick Corea told Manfred Eicher to check out the soulful trumpeter then playing in a Hamburg workshop band. In 1975 Eicher invited Wheeler to New York for the recording of Gnu High, a now-legendary session with Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. The album brought Kenny international press attention and recognition as more than a musicians’ musician.


It was followed by many other ECM sessions: as a leader of his ensembles small and large, as a co-leader with John Taylor and Norma Winstone in Azimuth, as a member of Dave Holland’s Quintet, and as sideman or guest with John Abercrombie, Pierre Favre, Bill Frisell, Arild Andersen, George Adams, Rainer Brüninghaus, Ralph Towner and Leo Smith. He was also heard in the freewheeling contexts of Alexander von Schlippenbach’s Globe Unity and the Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra – both of these adventurous big bands included Kenny Wheeler compositions in their respective repertoires.

Songs for Quintet was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in December 2013, and produced by Manfred Eicher and Steve Lake. The album is issued on January 14th, 2015, which would have been Kenny’s 85th birthday.