Pop & Jazz: Live: Kitchen-sink superstars

Kenny Wheeler/Lee Konitz/John Abercrombie/Dave Holland St George's Brandon Hill Bristol
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
KENNY WHEELER'S Angel Song of 1997 was one of the best jazz albums of the decade, casting the trumpeter's melancholy tunes for a superstar quartet that eschewed the potentially disruptive presence of a drummer in favour of the guitarist Bill Frisell's lonesome cowboy wails. So ethereal are the album's charms that it has become a big hit in kitchens throughout the land, its gentle, ruminative grooves providing a soundtrack to live by as much as to listen to. How the music would fare in the concert hall for this Contemporary Music Network tour was difficult to judge. With no washing-up to do, would the sound still command attention?

The setting of St George's provided a suitably ecclesiastical context for the almost devotional quality of the music, and the wonderfully airy acoustic flattered the sounds of Wheeler's flugelhorn, Konitz's alto sax, Abercrombie's almost apologetically electric guitar and the deep, woody tones of Holland's double bass, to near perfection. Though at first the tuning was a little off, slowly but surely each instrument found its own level and before long the whole hall seemed to be singing, the sound hanging suspended in the air like a hi-fi fan's dream. While most good concerts offer at least one moment where the listener just has to stop and say "Wow!", here there was an almost continual stream of suitably gob-smacking opportunities. Everyone knows that Dave Holland is a wondrous bass-player, but the extent to which he amazed us was quite incredible, and all done without recourse to vulgar showboating.

As a trumpeter (although he in fact played the conically-bored flugel throughout), Kenny Wheeler is unusual in that he neither wheedles nor whinnies, favouring instead a full, plangent, almost classical tone. In the lower registers there's a satisfyingly deep bottom, and at the high end he has made a language entirely of his own, with breathy, expressionist smears that sound as though the air in the valves is shooting towards the surface like a submarine, spilling out aqueous waves of half-formed phrases as it rises.

On alto sax, Lee Konitz remains, at 71 years of age, an eccentric marvel. A student of Lennie Tristano's quiet revolution in jazz aesthetics, and part of the "Birth of the Cool" school with Miles Davis's nonet, Konitz has an effortlessly hip and indirect way with a solo. On the one standard of the night, a showcase feature of "Body and Soul", Konitz sounded as Charlie Parker might have done if he had favoured tranquillisers.

Replacing the album's Bill Frisell on guitar, John Abercrombie was unusually restrained, but the combination of his off-centre chording and Holland's magisterial command of time provided a rhythm section to die for. By the end of two long sets, you were beginning to miss the lure of dishcloth and Fairy Liquid, but this remained one of the great jazz gigs. And although no one is likely to notice, Kenny Wheeler is probably a genius.