Born in Toronto in 1930 but based in England from 1952, Kenny Wheeler was by the late 1960s a highly regarded figure on the London scene, living a sort of double life – as a post-bop trumpeter and flugelhorn player inspired by Clifford Brown and Art Farmer and as a pioneering free player moving into unexplored territory alongside improvisers such as John Stevens, Evan Parker, Dave Holland and Derek Bailey.
Jazz tradition and free experimentation would intermingle in Wheeler's palette as player and composer. As he put it, "the free stuff relaxed my conventional playing and the conventional playing gave shape to my free soloing," and ideas discovered in improvising, especially a fondness for intervallic leaps, were subsequently deployed in his pieces. He cited Duke Ellington, Gil Evans and Stan Kenton as formative influences on his writing but also listened closely to classical and contemporary composition; Paul Hindemith was another key influence.
Melody was the core of his own writing, and he always found new ways to frame it, harmonically and rhythmically. In terms of emotional atmosphere, he found melancholy cheering. "Sad music makes me feel happy," he said. "My favourite people in jazz are the ones who sound a bit sad. Billie Holiday, Miles Davis." His recorded legacy includes albums now regarded as contemporary jazz classics such as Gnu High, Deer Wan, Music For Large And Small Ensembles and Angel Song.
His 1978 masterpiece Deer Wan was engineered by Jan Erik Kongshaug and finds wheeler working with top shelf musicians like Jan Garbarek (saxophone), John Abercrombie (guitar/mandolin), Dave Holland (bass), Ralph Towner (12-string guitar), and Jack DeJohnette (drums). Featuring four original smooth Wheeler compositions, three of which clock in at over 10-minutes, Deer Wan is both lyrical and romantic in all the right places.
Kenny Wheeler, trumpet, flugelhorn
Jan Garbarek, tenor & soprano saxophone
John Abercrombie, Electric guitar & mandolin
Dave Holland, double-bass
Jack DeJohnette, drums
Ralph Towner, 12-string guitar