Kenny Wheeler, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

From the moment Kenny Wheeler was introduced not only as a trumpet-player but also as a "wit, raconteur and the world's foremost expert on American cheesecake", it was obvious that the celebrations to mark the 75th birthday of one of Canada's most welcome exports to this country were not going to be too stiff an affair.

From the moment Kenny Wheeler was introduced not only as a trumpet-player but also as a "wit, raconteur and the world's foremost expert on American cheesecake", it was obvious that the celebrations to mark the 75th birthday of one of Canada's most welcome exports to this country were not going to be too stiff an affair.

Neither the formal surroundings of the QEH nor the fact that the concert was being recorded by Radio 3, which had commissioned Wheeler to write Long Suite 2005 for the second half, were going to interfere with the mood. So relaxed was Wheeler that he forgot his score for the suite and had to go off stage to collect it.

But there was nothing slack about Wheeler's thrilling arrangements, nor about the musicians collected to perform. The 21-piece big band boasted leading UK players such as the saxophonists Evan Parker and Stan Sulzmann, while the small group that preceded it on stage was underpinned by the double bass of Dave Holland, fiercely applauded by the packed hall.

From the opening number, "Kind Folk", all the Wheeler trademarks were there: bold, romantic melodies with big open intervals; strong rhythmic riffs on the bass and piano syncopating against the time signature; and chord changes that slip through major keys, suggesting a comforting resolution, but settling in a minor key.

The harmony is perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of a Wheeler tune. Change after change occurs in the structure; you think you see the pattern unfolding like a staircase, but landings appear and the direction turns unexpectedly.

Wheeler sounded warm and blowsy on flugelhorn, a mix of floridity and fluidity, and showed that he was still capable, despite the occasional fluff, of the old directness on trumpet. On his ballad, "Mark Time", he employed a deliciously slow vibrato, throwing shadows like a rotating lamp.

Of the other soloists, most was expected from Lee Konitz. The 77-year-old Chicagoan's alto sax was a bit baggy at the edges, but in the suite, where had his own interlude section, it was luscious and sharp, like cream just beginning to go off. At only 23, the pianist Gwilym Simcock found himself in exalted company but acquitted himself well, if a little sparingly (tentatively?) in early numbers. The most accomplished soloing came from Holland's bass. Solid but springy, woody and clear, Holland demonstrated the confidence that comes from 35 years at the top of the game.

By the end of the encore, from Wheeler's Double, Double You album, everyone in the band had been given a chance to solo. Some showed why they're ensemble players rather than soloists, but this indulgence could be forgiven on such an evening, where the audience joined in singing "Happy Birthday". Wheeler looked delighted, and rightly so. For once that terrible cliché, "there's a lot of love in this room", was true, and it was directed at him.

Comments