Kenny Wheeler 80th Birthday | Jazz review

Royal Academy of Music

As a unique improviser, and as a ­composer and arranger on a par with Gil Evans, Kenny Wheeler has been revered since the 1960s. Yet the shy Canadian trumpeter told me five years ago: "I'm not a composer, I'm somebody who takes pretty songs and joins them up." Wheeler's 80th birthday concert, hosted by the Royal Academy of Music, showed what an understatement that was.

Wheeler's evocative big-band ­writing, with its purple-hued palette of slow-build melodies, ­shifting harmonies, gentle dances, poignant ballads, and ­eruptions of fierce free-improv, dominated the show. But in the first half he put ­himself in the hot seat of a small band, unfolding his flugelhorn solos as lazily sketched shapes sporadically quickened by impulsive runs and soft squeals – before a storming rhythm ­section of John Taylor, Dave Holland and Martin France pulled the music into freewheeling fast passages that found their way home by increasingly devious routes. Saxists Stan ­Sulzmann and Julian Argüelles added a gentle and a rugged lyricism respectively, before Evan Parker's ­thrilling free-tenor ­outburst brought the set to the boil.

The big-band half ­featured ­classic Wheeler pieces and some surprises, such as a ­romantic ­arrangement of Dudu Pukwana's ballad Be My Dear. ­Wheeler's warm contrapuntal ­partnerships with Norma Winstone's pure vocal tones were reminders of how ­uncannily ­similar their ­phrasing is. ­Deceptively ­artless folk-melody themes grew ­layers of new ­meanings through the ­harmony changes; the Gordon Jenkins ballad ­Goodbye joined criss-crossing sax lines to a Sinatra-inflected vocal from Andrew Bradley; and ­Wheeler's ­delectable ­Winter Sweet let Winstone curl her voice ­plaintively over rich, Evans-like brass chords. A ­closing Happy Birthday brought a smile to the face of a man who, as ever, looked ­surprised to be there.

Contributor

John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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