Kenny Wheeler, the great expat Canadian trumpeter and composer, once said he had always liked losers. His classic album Windmill Tilter, recorded with John Dankworth in 1968, was devoted to Don Quixote, and Wheeler's haunting music seems to reflect the tantalising distance between dreams and coping with the world.
Now 78, he sits down to play, but in most other respects his music retains its old, quietly wistful intensity. A rare London gig with an A-list band brought a large multigenerational audience to the Vortex, and the group's urgent rhythmic drive (imparted by bassist Chris Laurence in animated mood, colourfully imaginative guitarist John Parricelli and a dazzling Martin France on drums) gave Wheeler's reflective songs a rare momentum.
Wheeler's soft, mid-range murmurs and suddenly startled squeals on flugelhorn contrasted fruitfully with Stan Sulzmann's more seamless tenor and soprano sax solos, though the elegant Sulzmann takes just as many unexpected melodic detours these days. Sulzmann and Parricelli played breathtaking improvisations, drifting in and out of the groove, on a delicate Latin swinger. The languid lyricism of the leader's Kind Folks, in the second half, was followed by an almost-free thrash in which Wheeler's occasionally querulous trumpet wound around the sax line with intensifying brightness and strength. The group, and the crowd, did a modest jazz genius proud.