Kenny Wheeler: Acclaimed trumpeter and composer who was equally at home in the avant-garde and in mainstream jazz

Brian Morton
Monday 22 September 2014 17:46

"Everybody's Song But My Own" might sound like a standard jazzman's lament, a wry comment on a life spent playing standards and repertory pieces. In Kenny Wheeler's case, perhaps the opposite was the case. The Canadian-born trumpeter was one of the leading composers of his generation, the creator of subtly inflected, often quiet, though by no means understated charts.

As such, and as a seemingly ubiquitous presence, gaining credits from neo-trad with clarinettist Sandy Brown, r'n'b with the Animals and prog-pop with David Sylvian, to the European and American avant-garde of Globe Unity Orchestra and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, and the Anthony Braxton quartet, he was sometimes overshadowed in a market that still thrives on showy variation of repertory pieces and ancient standards.

Wheeler was anything but showy, as player or person, but his quiet, clean-lined trumpet sound had as much fire in reserve as his nature had wit and playfulness. Apparent self-effacement disappeared when he sat down to write, which he did after his own equivalent of Canadian Air Force exercises, an early morning spell of playing Bach at the piano, which he regarded as the staunchless source of all composition.

He was born in Toronto in 1930 and grew up in St Catharines; he was delighted to be told by a Scottish journalist that he was "discovered" around the same time as the planet Pluto. "Yep, that's how it feels sometimes," he said. He took up the cornet at school and went on to study at the Royal Conservatory in his native city. He became interested in jazz and in 1952 moved to London, where he fell in with a rapidly developing jazz scene but made his first professional forays in the rapidly declining big band scene, playing with Vic Lewis and Roy Fox. Always interested in writing, he took composition lessons with Richard Rodney Bennett but his university was the John Dankworth group, with whom he worked from 1959 to 1965, later using the Dankworth orchestra on his debut as a leader and composer, Windmill Tilter (1968).

Initially influenced by the bebop trumpet of Fats Navarro and his equally short-lived descendant Booker Little, Wheeler also adopted the clipped abstractions and parched romanticism of the trumpeter and flugelhorn player Art Farmer, the American he most closely resembled in tone. Seemingly effortless adaptability led him to work in both mainstream contexts and in the emerging avant-garde.

He recorded with Alexander von Schlippenbach's Globe Unity and in 1968 performed on the Spontaneous Music Ensemble's Karyobin, a founding document of British free music. In that same year he also guested on guitarist's Terry Smith's Fall Out, produced by Scott Walker. With an ability to read and interpret complex and demanding scores, Wheeler made an important contribution to the American saxophonist Anthony Braxton's pioneering quartet, whose music was often written-out.

Association with Manfred Eicher's musician-friendly ECM label made Wheeler a recording star and from 1975 he worked regularly with a label whose technical virtues matched his own. Gnu High and Deer Wan (puns weren't beneath him) appeared in 1975 and 1977 respectively, the former a very rare instance of the pianist Keith Jarrett consenting to work under another leader. He did make occasional records for other labels, including an unusual Canadian project called Ensemble Fusionaire for CBC and Flutter By, Butterfly (source of "Everybody's Song But My Own") for the Italian imprint Soul Note, with a mostly British group.

In 1990 Wheeler celebrated his 60th birthday with two towering records for ECM. One, Music For Large And Small Ensembles, contains some of his most distinctive writing and remains the best place to access his particular grasp of tonality and instrumental colour in a mixture of scored and improvised settings. It extended a line of enquiry begun in 1973 with the Incus album Song For Someone.

There are hints of the Canadian prairie on the "Opening" to "Sweet Time Suite"; Wheeler did not forget his native country and it did not forget him, and he was awarded the Order of Canada. In the same year as Music For Large And Small Ensembles Wheeler also made The Widow In The Window, with bassist Dave Holland and pianist Taylor, a set that included "Ana", one of his first works to be taken up as modern repertory and recorded in a magnificent version by the Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra.

In the 1990 ensembles were his closest and most lasting collaborators, including Holland, Evan Parker, Taylor and singer Norma Winstone, whose improvising voice increased the chromaticism of his arrangements and humanised some unwontedly personal and self-revealing pieces. Wheeler, Taylor and Winstone toured and recorded as Azimuth, producing a sequence of beautiful, impressionistic jazz with a steely compositional heart. He also became a member of the United Jazz + Rock Ensemble, an improbable coalition of Brits and Europeans that stood the test of time and managed to combine both genres without dipping into "fusion".

In 1995 came another masterwork, Angel Song, with a pianoless and drummerless group featuring the saxophonist Lee Konitz, guitarist Bill Frisell and Dave Holland. He continued to write and to perform in varied settings. A compilation, Dream Sequence, was released on Evan Parker's psi label in 2004; its opening sequence, "Unti", is an archetypal Wheeler creation, a stop-start theme in which every melodic motif is carefully weighted in the line, each cadence voiced with pristine assurance.

Wheeler's last few years were marked by a flurry of activity on the Italian CamJazz label (the successor to Soul Note), with whom he made six releases in as many years, starting with It Takes Two! and culminating in the belatedly released Six For Six in 2013. Wheeler was mostly playing flugelhorn by this time, as on the beautiful Mirrors made for Edition Records (the British ECM) with Norma Winstone and London Vocal Project, a collaborative project made in heaven. Wheeler died after a short period of ill health, during which he was confined to a nursing home, but still seeing old friends and associates.

Kenneth Vincent John Wheeler, musician: born Toronto 14 January 1930; married Doreen (one daughter, one son); died London 18 September 2014.

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