May 19, 2024

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CD review: The Kenny Wheeler Big Band & Friends – Live ’71 – 2023: Video, CD cover

Anyone with an interest in British modern jazz over the last fifty years or so cannot fail to be aware of the music of Kenny Wheeler. The Canadian trumpeter and composer who was equally adept at performing on the flugelhorn made the United Kingdom his home from the 1950s until his death in 2014 at the age of 84.

Beginning his musical journey on the cornet in Toronto at the age of 12, he discovered a love for jazz in his mid-teens and whilst most of his work was rooted in jazz, he was also active in free improvisation, jazz rock and sometimes contributed to rock music recordings. He is credited with writing more than one hundred compositions and arranging music for both small groups and large ensembles.

Upon his arrival in Britain in 1952 he gravitated towards the London jazz scene and work followed by the likes of saxophonists Tommy Whittle, Ronnie Scott, and Tubby Hayes. He studied composition with Richard Rodney Bennett and the American trombonist and composer Bill Russo, whilst Russo was on sabbatical in London. Putting his learning to good use, he performed and recorded his own compositions with large ensembles throughout his career, recording his first set of compositions with the John Dankworth orchestra in 1969. His first large group recording under his own name featuring his characteristic orchestral writing was unusual in its fusing of a semi-conventional big band lineup with leading members of the free jazz scene, including saxophonist Evan Parker and guitarist Derek Bailey. The resulting album Song for Someone was released in 1973 and received the accolade of Album of the Year in Melody Maker magazine in 1975.

Since the time of his death, there have been various tribute albums paying homage to Wheeler’s extended legacy of compositions. One of the best being an album of small group compositions previously unrecorded and released last year by bass player Chris Laurence Some Gnu Ones on the esteemed Jazz in Britain label. Now we have something to match that with the release of Live ’71: The Kenny Wheeler Big Band & Friends, released both as a download and a CD, on the enterprising British Progressive Jazz label. The mathematicians amongst you will quickly realise that the music dates from two years prior to Song for Someone. The personnel is not dissimilar to that on the earlier release and it’s interesting to hear how some of the music subtly evolved over the intervening period. Evan Parker remains and, as previously, the personnel includes an interesting mix of seasoned stalwarts of the London session scene of the time and some of the ‘young lions’ just then starting to make an impression in the modern jazz arena in Britain.

The material for the album has never been released commercially and consists of a live session from 24 May 1971 previously broadcast on the BBC Jazz Club programme and represents the earliest known recording of Wheeler leading his own big band. The album opens with ‘Mikei’ and in this respect replicates the opening track from the later album release where interestingly the tune is renamed as ‘Toot-Toot’. This is a powerful opening and highlights the wordless vocals on Norma Winstone in the opening theme statement. The piece overall seems to lack some of the excitement and urgency of the album version. Perhaps this might have been due to the live recording environment. Nonetheless, Wheeler delivers an impassioned solo around the mid-way point with John Taylor following on electric piano. Before the collective brass mass together to recapitulate the majestic theme, the whole underpinned by the mighty Ron Mathewson on double bass and the inimitable Tony Oxley behind the drums. What was to become the album title track is next and ‘Song for Someone’ marks a change of pace and allows prominence to Winstone’s wordless vocals once more, where she admirably sketches the melody of this typically melancholy Wheeler ballad, the performance here being almost twice the length of the album version and quite significantly different. However, once the melody is disposed of Oxley thunders in with the band, once more raising the temperature before giving way to more electric piano from Taylor.

‘Some Days Are Better’ follows and is soon swinging at a delightful mid-tempo. Tony Roberts takes a particularly melodic solo before Wheeler is back for a further fire-laden solo supported by the Taylor/Mathewson/Oxley rhythm section which in turn gives way to the duo of trombonist ( I imagine Chris Pyne) and Mathewson before more piano from Taylor brings in an angular theme statement prior to the frantic alto saxophone of Mike Osborne taking the music into free-form territory, followed in a similar vein by Mathewson. This eleven-minute performance is a particular treat as it was not included on the subsequent album and proves to be a real tour-de-force.

The album concludes with ‘CP EP’, both a dedication to and feature for Chris Pyne and Evan Parker. Pyne is customarily robust and forthright in his solo exposition, at times accompanied only by Oxley before the brass re-join the fray to usher in the high harmonics and high energy of saxophonist Evan Parker for a further foray into the realms of free jazz. In all a powerhouse six-minute finale to this live broadcast performance which, thanks to Matt Parker and colleagues at British Progressive Jazz is now available for us all to hear either once again or perhaps for the first time.

It is almost invidious to compare this broadcast with the better-known album as only two pieces are common to both and thus they both offer new and significant insights into the music of the British modern jazz scene of the 1970s.

1. Mikei 6:42
2. Song For Someone 5:18
3. Some Days Are Better 11:17
4. CP EP 6:15

Kenny Wheeler – trumpet & flugelhorn
Mike Osborne – alto saxophone
David Horler – trombone
Tony Roberts – tenor saxophone
Ian Hamer – trumpet
Greg Bowen – trumpet
Dave Hancock – trumpet
Bobby Lamb – trombone
Keith Christie – trombone
Pete Harvey – trombone
Alfie Reece – tuba
Alan Branscombe – piano
John Taylor – electric piano
Ron Mathewson – double bass
Tony Oxley – drums & percussion

With guest appearances by:
Evan Parker – tenor saxophone (track 4)
Chris Pyne – trombone (track 4)
Norma Winstone – voice (track 2)

Live '71: The Kenny Wheeler Big Band & Friends | Kenny Wheeler | British  Progressive Jazz

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