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Arts: Jazz? Far too many notes

If the sound of silence is what you look for in jazz, then Kenny Wheeler's your trumpeter. By Phil Johnson
IF JAZZ is a music that blows hot and cool, Kenny Wheeler blows cooler than just about anyone. The trumpeter, born in Canada in 1930 but resident in England since 1952, has established a style as both a player and a composer that is utterly distinctive. While other trumpeters favour speed-of-light runs and top notes so high that only dogs can appreciate them fully, Wheeler deals quite unapologetically with beauty. Meditative and melancholy, his compositions use silence as an empty canvas on which he paints limpid soundscapes as spare and sepulchral as a late Mark Rothko.

Although Wheeler has been making beautiful music for five decades now, his Angel Song album of 1997 for ECM, the German company for whom he has been recording as a leader since 1975, was a particular triumph. Some of Wheeler's most affecting tunes were played by a quartet of jazz superstars including the legendary "cool school" saxophonist Lee Konitz, who appeared alongside Miles Davis on the Birth of the Cool sessions in 1948. Now the band from the album (with guitarist John Abercrombie replacing Bill Frisell) has been reassembled for a British tour, beginning next Sunday.

"I had always wanted to do an album with Lee Konitz," Wheeler says. "I had liked him since I was a teenager in Canada and I saw him with the Claude Thornhill band. Konitz took a solo and when it came to the middle- eight, he didn't play anything. After the concert I went up to him and said: `Mr Konitz, why didn't you play anything in the middle-eight?' He said: `I couldn't think of anything to play.' I liked that.

"I tried to follow him in the sense that he has his own language and he doesn't use many hot licks. I've generally tried to avoid them myself, it's easy if you want to get the crowd's appreciation to play high notes and throw the trumpet around - although I do occasionally throw in some showbiz..."

Anyone less showbiz than Kenny Wheeler, it would be hard to imagine. He's shy to the point of recessiveness and feels embarrassed about discussing his own trumpet playing. "I don't feel bad about saying I like the songs I've written because they're anybody's, but the trumpet playing - if you don't like it, it's only your own fault."

One of the most fruitful periods of Wheeler's career was his time in the Dave Holland Quintet, probably the most important small jazz group of the mid-Eighties. When Holland brought into the group the young alto saxophone player Steve Coleman - who has gone on to become a guru figure to contemporary black American musicians - the combination of Coleman's incendiary heat and Wheeler's reflective cool was unlikely, to say the least.

"The band was a great experience for me but when Steve Coleman came in I didn't feel I was doing justice to them, and I always felt a bit left out," Wheeler says. "Steve was rather frightening too; rhythmically, he's the best musician I've met, and he knows all that Charlie Parker language inside out." Perhaps because of the clash of musical personalities, the results of their partnership were largely sublime, especially on the wonderful Jumpin' In album of 1983.

Dave Holland, who was famously recruited by Miles Davis after he saw him at Ronnie Scott's in 1968 and has remained resident in America ever since, is also the bassist on Angel Song, and he and Wheeler have had an ongoing partnership for so long that it almost amounts to a musical marriage.

But the wild card in the Angel Song recording was the presence of the guitarist Bill Frisell. Manfred Eicher, the producer of the album, had originally suggested a trio date, but Wheeler wanted a harmony instrument and put forward the name of guitarist John Abercrombie, with whom he had played many times. Eicher countered with the suggestion of Frisell and Wheeler accepted. It was also the producer's idea that the recording should not feature a drummer.

In retrospect, both of Eicher's suggestions seem crucial. The absence of drums allows the silence at the heart of the music to shine through, and Frisell's ethereal atmospherics bring with them the feel of the pedal- steel guitar in country music, which suits the melancholy temper of the compositions perfectly.

"Bill has that cowboy thing and I wondered whether it would suit my tunes, but it does," Wheeler says. "I do like that kind of uncluttered music. It's like he is the country, whereas John Abercrombie is the city. When Bill plays I see cowboys; with John, I think of taxis." Despite the replacement of the rural with the urban, you know that the music on the tour is still going to be, well, beautiful.

The `Angel Song' tour begins at Southampton, Turner Sims Concert Hall (01703 595151), Sunday 24 January; London, QEH (0171-960 4201), Monday 25 January; Bristol, St George's Brandon Hill (0117-923 0359), Wednesday 27 January; Leeds, Irish Centre (0113-245 5570), Thursday 28 January; Darlington Arts Centre, (01325 486555), Friday 29 January; Birmingham, Adrian Boult Hall, (0121-236 5622), Saturday 30 January