Talking Jazz

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The Independent Culture

Though he was born in Canada, the trumpeter Kenny Wheeler has become an adopted Londoner. His majestic horn solos have crackled, puttered, soared and burnt in equal measure, weaving their way through old-fashioned big-band swing and extreme abstraction, eventually maturing into use for his own evocative compositions. A feeling of magisterial romance invariably pervades these works, a sense of melancholy that seems streaked with lyrical hope.

I went to visit Wheeler in Leytonstone. He's a homely figure, ambling around a room littered with scores. He's been holidaying in the town of his schooldays. "I was the black sheep of the family, who left," he laughs. "Everyone else is still there, in St Catherine's, Southern Ontario. I get back at least once a year."

Fellow trumpeter and Kenny Wheeler Big Band member Henry Lowther is also present, with a new flugelhorn he's helped to develop. Wheeler is clearly impressed by the burnished softness of this mellower horn. Although perceived as a trumpeter, Wheeler probably spends more time actually blowing the flugelhorn.

"I never touch the flugelhorn at home," he says. "I only practise the trumpet, but it seems that on gigs I play mostly flugelhorn." Lowther says to Wheeler: "I remember you once saying that the trouble with flugelhorn is that it spoils you for the trumpet. It always sounds so nasty, straight afterwards." This ongoing interest in the flugelhorn is reflected in its choice as Wheeler's sole instrument on the recording sessions for his latest album.

In January, Wheeler celebrated his 75th birthday by taking his big band on a six-date tour. This 19-piece assemblage featured Lee Konitz (alto sax), Dave Holland (bass), Evan Parker (tenor and soprano sax) and Norma Winstone (vocals). Wheeler can draw on the services of such august figures, as he commands universal jazz respect.

His early work on the London scene in the Fifties found him playing for Johnny Dankworth, Ronnie Scott and Joe Harriott. A decade later, he was at the vanguard of Sixties free improvisation with John Stevens, Evan Parker and Derek Bailey - together the Spontaneous Music Ensemble.

In the Seventies, Wheeler was negotiating the complexities of Anthony Braxton and the Globe Unity Orchestra, providing new slants on the relationship between rigorous notation and abstract blowing. His solo work is usually more lyrically poised, beginning with Windmill Tilter (1968), through 1975's Gnu High, 1977's Deer Wan, 1993's Kayak and 1999's brass-centred A Long Time Ago. The 1973 album Song For Someone was recently issued on CD by Evan Parker's psi label.

Wheeler's relationship with Parker stretches back to the Sixties, when they were both in the hardcore improvising scene. I ask Wheeler if he ever feels a call to return to musical abstraction. "I don't get asked so much to do that any more," he says. "I would if I knew who the people were, how they played. I wouldn't want to do it with anybody. I think people like to put you in a bag. I'm not bebop, I'm not Dixieland, and I'm not completely free, that's for sure. I'm a bit of a mixture."

I ask about his first weeks in London, back in the Fifties. "I visited the local jazz club, and after a few weeks I asked to sit in," he recalls. "I thought I did all right, but nobody said anything." Wheeler then discovered Archer Street. "It was like a marketplace. Every Monday, musicians all met there, and through that I started to get work. There was lots of work around. Lots of bands. You could get a job as a fourth trumpet player, even if you couldn't play very well."

Wheeler then began to explore his experimental side. He has established a softer sound, a wistful investigation of endless horizons.

Last December, Kenny recorded with the Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi for the Rome-based CamJazz label. CamJazz recently issued Where Do We Go From Here, an album of duets by Wheeler and pianist John Taylor.

Wheeler and Taylor have built up an uncanny rapport over many years of playing. "Usually, John comes up with the ideas. He's great to play with. He's very inspiring. He will always think of something different. Most of the material we'd already played, as a duo."

The latest release by Wheeler on CamJazz is a quartet session, What Now?, with Taylor again on piano, Chris Potter (tenor sax) and Dave Holland (bass). All the tunes are penned by Wheeler.

'What Now?' is released on Monday by CamJazz, distributed in the UK by Hot Records