CD REVIEW: Kenny Wheeler - Songs for Quintet

Kenny Wheeler - Songs for Quintet
(ECM 2388 / 6025 470 4653. CD Review by Sebastian Scotney)

The last period of Kenny Wheeler's life gave rise to the development of a unmistakeable personal style in which melodic expression is simplified, direct and irresistible. That late flowering has been succinctly and beautifully captured on Songs for Quintet, indeed perhaps better than anywhere else.

The CD  presents a recording of what proved to be Wheeler's last performance. It was made at Abbey Road Studios in December 2013, in the company of the regular quintet in his final years. It was recorded over two days with both Steve Lake and Manfred Eicher present.

The recording marks Wheeler's return to ECM after a gap, a “Long Waiting” of most of two decades. The recording has significance as a notable chapter in the much bigger story, which is the likely durability of Wheeler's music and the worldwide scale of its influence. But it also should be seen outside of that context and on its intrinsic merits as music of expressive intensity played by a quintet from the elite of European jazz,

There are several tracks on Songs for Quintet which inhabit the listener's consciousness, in my case, tracks 1, 2, 6 and 8 have gone straight in from the very first listen. They are benign ear-worms. They just don't go away.

Repeated listens reinforce not just the appeal of these tunes but also the quality of the dialogue and the interaction which the material inspires. The tunes are vehicles for call and response, for a statement of a short melodic fragment to be heard and responded to. In Stan Sulzmann, who occupies the role of answerer, commenter to Wheeler's first statements, the composer and flugelhorn player had the ideal foil, alter ego, brother, echo. The presence of that second voice, Sulzmann's endless imagination in finding and placing the perfect counter-melody ensures that no phrase that Kenny Wheeler utters ever goes to waste. It is fitting that Sulzmann also had a major role in overseeing the sessions and the post-production. The saxophonist's thoughtfulness, balance and good judgment are present in abundance on this album.

What deserves special praise is the care that the other members of the quintet bring to their tasks. The final track Nonetheless has a poignant ending in which the quartet without Wheeler usher the tune to a soft and delicate close. It is quite poetic: the performance tradition of Wheeler's music will develop as musicians such as those on this album take it forwards.

Moments of such refinement, fluency and dedication are there throughout the album. Guitarist John Parricelli creates space in every bar, gives himself the chance to react, to create a new story in the moment, whereby his art constantly holds the listener's interest. Chris Laurence always maintains a sense of forward propulsion and purposefulness. Drummer Martin France has his defining moment in the crisply infectious flamenco rhythm of Six Eyes, but he makes subtle contributions to each and every texture.

Wheeler's passing is so recent, admirers of his music are bound to be busy absorbing and assessing all stages of his career simultaneously, perhaps trying to remember him in his prime. And yes, some will prefer to resist this album because of the moments where he plays with frailty and hesitancy. But that approach to this album runs the risk of missing the point. The astonishing outpouring of melody from Wheeler as composer in his last years has produced music which, surely, will stand the test of time.

The CD is beautifully presented with two booklets. One of them has photographs of the quintet, the other chronicles Wheeler's distinguished association with ECM.

But above all, it works; the music stands on its own merits. As one person who heard it alongside me, without knowledge of what it was, or of any of the album's unique context, asked me: “What's not to like about it?”

Kenny Wheeler: flugelhorn; Stan Sulzmann: tenor saxophone; John Parricelli: guitar; Chris Laurence: double bass; Martin France: drums


1) Seventy-six
2) Jigsaw
3) The Long Waiting
4) Canter No.1
5) Six Eyes
6) 1076 
 7) Old Time 
 8) Pretty Liddle Walt 
9) Nonetheless

The edition of Geoffrey Smith's Jazz dedicated to Kenny Wheeler is currently on BBC iPlayer

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