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Kenny Wheeler - Song for Someone

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Artist: Kenny Wheeler

Album: Song for Someone

Label: Psi

Review date: Apr. 13, 2004

Kenny Wheeler has long had one of the most recognizable sounds in jazz and improvisation, and his writing is just as distinct in terms of its harmonic sense and arrangements. Fans of his small group classics (like Deer Wan or The Widow by the Window) know this just as surely as freaks for his Music for Large and Small Ensembles. But for quite a long time, Wheeler’s big band music has been almost impossible to find, especially the classics Windmill Tilter and this gorgeous release. It’s a thrill to finally hear this music, which sounds vital even though it was recorded way back in January 1973.

Wheeler was known at this point as a mainstream-trained trumpeter who’d made a name for himself through his associations with John Stevens, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, and the very healthy European free scene of the time. It’s now clear – both from Wheeler’s subsequent association with the hugely important Braxton Quartet of the mid-1970s (and would somebody please reissue that Arista material?) and from his own dates – that he was interested in a hybrid music, one that partook of the freedom and expressionism of the improv scene as well as of the equally rich possibilities in playing structural or idiomatic music. Song for Someone represents one of his earliest and most successful attempts at marrying the two approaches. And his hand-picked crop of players (trumpeters/fluegelhornists Greg Bowen, Ian Hamer, Dave Hancock and Wheeler himself; trombonists/bass trombonists Keith Christie, Bobby Lamb, Chris Pyne, Jim Wilson, David Horler, and Malcolm Griffiths; tubaist Alfie Reece; reed players Mike Osborne, Duncan Lamont, and Evan Parker; pianists Alan Branscombe and John Taylor; bassist Ron Matthewson; percussionist Tony Oxley; and, on one track, guitarist Derek Bailey) renders his charts exquisitely.

There are times when the ensemble sounds purposefully frayed, ripping the fabric of the composition to bits in the spirit of joyous collectivism. But there are also places which recall Mingus’ Let My Children Hear Music, particularly in the blending of extreme timbres and pitches on the opening “Toot-Toot.” The shimmering “Ballad Two,” with solos from various brass players, could almost be lifted from a Gerry Mulligan or Stan Getz big band (except perhaps for the wonderful contributions of Norma Winstone, whose wordless vocals sound like a particularly sweet horn in these arrangements). Winstone really shines on the title track, a brief and enigmatic tone poem. But those who are looking for a little more aggression and freeplay, fret not. Parker and Bailey spit fire at each other during the introduction to the long “The Good Doctor,” which builds from a chugging, swinging riff into a grand fanfare that spins into multiple directions before the furious Parker/Oxley/Bailey throwdown which concludes the piece. It’s a satisfying distillation of this rich recording, which is both historically important and instantly gratifying.

By Jason Bivins

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