Kenny Wheeler - Songs for Quintet - ECM 2388



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Songs for Quintet, Kenny Wheeler’s final recording, features compositions of relatively recent vintage, plus a fresh approach to “Old Time” – which the Azimuth trio used to play – and “Nonetheless”, a piece introduced on Angel Song. The album was recorded at London’s Abbey Road Studios with four of Kenny’s favourite players. Stan Sulzmann, John Parricelli, Chris Laurence and Martin France work together marvellously as an interactive unit, solo persuasively, and provide support for the tender and lyrical flugelhorn of the bandleader. 

The session turned out to be the last occasion on which Kenny played with other musicians. He was not well enough to participate in what was intended to be a celebratory quintet gig shortly after the recording. If age and illness temper the strength of his sound on Songs for Quintet, the melodic imagination and the improvisational courage remain; the flugelhorn soloist could not be anybody but Kenny Wheeler.

His exchanges with Stan Sulzmann throughout the album are full of charm, and indicative of the sense of friendship and mutual respect that characterises the whole band. Everybody’s looking out for the leader, which need not imply a reining in of energies. Listen to the roaring of the ensemble on the strangely-titled “1076”, for instance, and the way in which Kenny solos above the groundswell of drums and the thick swaths of electric guitar texture. This doesn’t fit conventional notions of “late music”.

The jaunty “Old Time”, whose bluesy impetus feels midway between Mingus and Adderley, may sound familiar to long-time ECM listeners. There is an earlier version entitled “How It Was Then”, with lyrics by Norma Winstone, which appeared on an Azimuth recording in 1994.


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Waltzes were amongst Kenny’s favourite forms, and there are many in his discography. “A Pretty Liddle Waltz” is more than the characteristically self-effacing title suggests, its open spaces allowing Stan Sulzmann, Kenny and guitarist John Parricelli to stretch out. The tango “Sly Eyes” addresses more dramatic passions over its quasi-military beat. “Jigsaw” embodies a quality common to some of the loveliest of Kenny’s pieces. Built upon asymmetrical phrases that fit together according to their own logic, it flows in a manner entirely natural, eased along by Martin France’s drums, and with an elegant bass solo from Chris Laurence near the conclusion. Another bass feature, at the start of “Canter No. 1”, sets up the tune for its initial cantering, due to evolve, behind Sulzmann’s powerful solo, into full-fledged gallop.

“The Long Waiting”, which Kenny previously recorded in a big band version, seems ideally suited to the quintet. This version conveys the atmosphere of austerity and openness that Wheeler liked so much, a beautiful melancholy expressed so very well in the solos of Parricelli and Sulzmann and in Kenny’s own vulnerable solo.