This two-disc set is a dazzling look at Kenny Wheeler's work as a composer. His breadth is stunning, from moody Oliver Nelson and Gil Evans-like expansiveness to compactly propulsive post-bop excursions. The first disc is taken up entirely with the eight-part "Sweet Time Suite." Wheeler's scoring is bracing and emotive. Singer Norma Winstone is on hand for portions of it, offering a gloriously soaring counterpoint to the massed horn section. Wheeler's diverse background serves him well, as he's quite comfortable with both the traditional and the avant-garde (he worked in one of Anthony Braxton's important combos in the mid-'70s). For anyone unfamiliar with this stellar musician's work, this is is an excellent starting point, as is his first album as a leader, the remarkable GNU HIGH.
Kenny Wheeler has long been a talented composer, improviser, and soloist, though he is still overlooked by some jazz fans because most of his work has been issued by European labels. Among the composers of his generation, Wheeler is one of the best, along with the late Bob Brookmeyer, in writing and scoring creative works for a large ensemble. For this session, Wheeler's charts are performed by a 17-piece big band – with the addition of Diana Torto's wordless vocals – conducted by Pete Churchill.
When Kenny Wheeler expatriated from his native Canada to England, it was not headline news. But upon the release of Gnu High, he became a contemporary jazz figure to be recognized, revered and admired. Playing the flugelhorn exclusively for this, his ECM label debut, Wheeler's mellifluous tones and wealth of ideas came to full fruition. Whether chosen in collaboration with label boss Manfred Eicher or by Wheeler alone, picking pianist Keith Jarrett, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette was a stroke of genius. They support the elongated and extended notions of Wheeler's in many real and important ways.
Kenny Wheeler is among the most lyrically commanding yet daring of modern trumpeters. There's a palpable ease of execution, and a poignant human quality, to his distinctive timbre, as on the title tune where his fluttering descents into the lower register, the cracked yet powerful vocal inflections, and the sudden emission of high harmonics suggest a whistling column of air slowly leaking from a balloon. And from the moody Spanish tinge of "Present Past" to the raga-ish Nordic gravity of "Unti," alto player Lee Konitz matches Wheeler's lyric ease with a singing sound and rhythmic buoyancy all his own.