For a while, at the beginning, I was put off by the seemingly flawless surface of Kenny Wheeler’s music. That swooping, soaring, almost frictionless lyricism that poured from his trumpet seemed too good to be true, and I couldn’t find the humanity in it. Eventually I began to comprehend the subtle nature of Kenny’s very personal conception and, having finally got the point, joined the many who admired him so greatly.
His death last September, at the age of 84, provoked mourning and tributes around the world. Then came the news that, nine months earlier, and already ailing, he had gone into a London studio to record a last album with four of his regular musical companions: the tenor saxophonist Stan Sulzmann, the guitarist John Parricelli, the bassist Chris Laurence and the drummer Martin France.
That album, Songs for Quintet, is released this month on the ECM label, for whom he recorded on and off for 40 years, and we must thank the producers of the session, Manfred Eicher and Steve Lake, for the decision to take this final opportunity to capture Kenny’s spirit on record.
His strength was beginning to go, but the unfamiliar sense of vulnerability that occasionally shows in his work — on flugelhorn only throughout the album’s nine pieces — never obstructs the music’s clarity or emotional impact. You would not want to miss his opening statement on “The Long Waiting”, a most elegant ballad, or the way he vaults into the theme of “Sly Eyes” over France’s parade-ground snare drum.
In any case, this is a record of a group playing Kenny’s tunes, so gorgeously stimulating for improvisers, rather than a showcase for the leader’s playing. One or two are familiar from earlier records, but all confirm the impression that other musicians will be exploring their glowing contours for many years to come. Here they draw a wonderful response from each of the musicians but in particular from Sulzmann, a collaborator for many years: a quiet presence with a gift for locating the essence of each composition and never playing a wasted note, he supports and sometimes takes the initiative in what may be a career-best performance.
As a graceful coda to a wonderful career, Songs for Quintet is not to be missed by anyone who ever fell under Kenny’s spell, however belatedly.
* The photograph of Kenny Wheeler was taken by Caroline Forbes at the Abbey Road studios during the Songs for Quintet sessions in December 2013 and appears in the album insert.