Review: Kenny Wheeler 80th Birthday Concert

Review: Kenny Wheeler 80th Birthday Concert
(Dukes Hall, Royal Academy of Music, January 14th 2010, Review by Frank Griffith)



Canadian- born trumpeter/composer Kenny Wheeler ’s 80th birthday concert was played to a more than packed house at the Royal Academy of Music. Located on the edge of Regents Park just a short walk away from Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street digs, there were no significant mysteries to uncloak excepting how this octogenarian sustains his amazing flexibility on his instrument coupled with a driven and relentless lyricism equally present in both his playing and writing.

The all-star cast present on stage had a This Is Your Life aspect to it with names like Dave Holland, John Taylor, Evan Parker, Stan Sulzmann, Derek Watkins and the brothers Horler, Dave and John, along with an equal number of younger jazz stars filling out the ranks.

The programme featured virtually all of Wheeler’s seminal CD, Music for Large and Small Ensembles recorded for ECM in 1990, not only in repertoire but the players as well. This included the Sweet Time Suite arguably his best known and most successful larger work. Founded on lyrical melodies cloaked in rich harmonies with each movement dedicated to someone and featuring the distinctive voices of the world-class soloists making up the ensemble. Added to this was Norma Winstone ’s unique voice and poignant lyrics to Wheeler’s melodies coupled with the leader’s flugelhorn and John Parricelli ’s guitar. Their unisons floating over the tightly voiced ensemble are emblematic of the Wheeler sound. Plaudits also to conductor, Pete Churchill.

If this was not enough there were four more pieces to follow in the second half, including new arrangements of Dudu Pukuwana’s B My Dear and Gordon Jenkins’ immortal Goodbye which was given a credible croon by Andrew Veasy.


The musical highlight for me was a blistering, fiery and inventive free duet between Dave Holland and Evan Parker as an introduction into Mark Time. Listeners might be aware that these two are amongst the primary innovators in this genre and the excited electricity that they projected to the audience was staggering to say the least. A unique and special moment in jazz history. Evan’s slap tonguing, stop-start tenor gobblings were in perfect concert with the high pitched, pizzicatti pluckings of Holland’s bass resulting in an arsenal of rhythmia flying about that would out-dazzle a 20-piece percussion ensemble. Scintillating stuff.


Other highlights included the subtle ferocity of Julian Arguelles ’ tenor sax. His seamless command of the multi-registers coupled with long and wiry yet intriguing phrases are a glory to behold. This is also noteworthy as his very unorthodox positioning of the horn and quirky looking embrochure do not seem to affect his output in any way. The horn and he are one. Valve trombonist, Dave Horler ’s lyrical reading of For Jan brought back pleasant memories of his rendition on the recording twenty years before. Derek Watkins ’ full bodied sound and cogent improvisations on Gentle Piece brought delight to the ear as well.

The night was clearly a Two Bass Hit as the veteran and long-time KW alumnus, Chris Laurence, played the second half dancing musically throughout, coaxing soloists as well as providing an engaging arco solo interlude bridging a Norma Winstone duet with Nikki Iles (Winter Sweet) to the evening’s closer Gentle Piece.

The night would not have been complete without a rousing, yet “Wheeleresque” rendition of Happy Birthday served up happily by the band to this great jazz icon. Many thanks and congratulations to trumpeter, Nick Smart, for practically single-handedly organising the event.

There is talk of an October tour- lets hope so.

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