Kenny Wheeler @ Pizza Express, 18th February 2011

imagesKenny Wheeler is one of the most inspirational and treasured players on the world jazz scene. The Canadian-born, England-based trumpet and flugelhorn player has enjoyed a long and varied career playing in quintets, quartets, big bands and with strings.

He’s probably best known for his classic solo albums Gnu High (which featured Keith Jarrett on piano) and Deer Wan on the legendary ECM record label, and enjoyed a successful and lengthy collaboration with singer and songwriter David Sylvian in the ’80s and ’90s on Brilliant Trees and Dead Bees On A Cake.

He has also worked extensively with American avant-garde saxophonist Anthony Braxton and in the group Azimuth with vocalist Norma Winstone and pianist John Taylor, who joined Wheeler here at the Pizza Express. A cliche-free player with a breathy, romantic sound, this was a relatively rare chance to see Wheeler perform in the UK. His elegant, labyrinthine compositions with their tricky chord sequences and shifting harmonies offer a challenge to soloists, but it’s worth the effort – Wheeler’s catalogue is full of intriguing, original work which defies genre categorisation.

Now 81, Wheeler stayed seated throughout this set, paying rigorous attention to the sheet music in front of him. He may have lost some puff but still managed to hit his trademark high squeals on ‘Old Ballads‘, eliciting murmurs of approval from his young band.

Pianist Taylor was a perfect foil with his instinctive feel for Wheeler’s compositions, navigating the potentially treacherous tonalities with shimmering, incisive statements. On ‘Canto No.1‘, tenor saxophonist Jon Irabagon played a thrilling, rhythmically-loose solo full of fluttering variations on the main theme which then cajoled Taylor into a remarkable polyrhythmic piano assault, kicking the band into high gear and double time.

Non-linear drummer Andrew Bain channelled Jack DeJohnette via Brian Blade while bassist Michael Janisch was nothing short of a revelation, burning through this complex music with energy and commitment.

An amusing footnote had John Taylor announcing the band to the audience and being unable to pronounce Irabagon’s surname – a pointer that these musicians had met on the bandstand and merely communicated through Wheeler’s music, a tribute to these superb players and the power of great jazz.

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