Kenny Wheeler, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Kenny Wheeler, one of Britain's few internationally feted jazz musicians, is on the road with an all-star big band - including Birth of the Cool legend Lee Konitz and bass powerhouse Dave Holland - to celebrate his 75th birthday. The performance draws from Wheeler's remarkable repertoire, following his midlife transformation from player to composer-player in the 1980s.

Wheeler's melancholy flugelhorn phrasing was a signature sound from the start, drifting into the path of Holland's pure-toned double-bass intro on Kind Folk, from the classic album Angel Song. Konitz's filmy alto-sax lines complemented the typical Wheeler atmosphere of mournful ecstasy, before young piano recruit Gwilym Simcock delivered the first of a series of glittering solos. A startled turn of the head and appreciative smile from the old master Konitz confirmed what a class act Simcock has so quickly become.

Konitz's famous melodic conundrum Subconscious Lee was beautifully delivered, with by the saxophonist, Evan Parker, and Wheeler intertwining the theme. Parker introduced Mark Time (a typical Wheeler theme, rising in steps with scurries and twists along the way) with hollow, breathy tenor-sax lyricism - though he eventually cut loose into a jolting free-jazz blow against Martin France's thrashing drums.

The centrepiece of the show was the big band. A fluid, dovetailing arrangement of How Deep Is the Ocean (delivered with bell-toned clarity by singer Norma Winstone) was followed in the second half by Radio 3's new commission - via a surprise rendition of Happy Birthday created from what the startled Wheeler thought were the opening chords. Then came some of the composer's most intricate writing, the familiar blue-tint landscapes and hymnal harmonies lit up by edgy, flaring themes. Konitz sounded hesitant, but Holland, trombonists Barnaby Dickinson and Mark Nightingale, and Stan Sulzmann, Ray Warleigh and Julian Arguelles on saxes and flutes delivered telling solos. A sophisticated show that will grow on the road.

· At Turner Sims, Southampton, tonight. Box office: 023-8059 5151. Then touring.


John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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