KENNY WHEELER

Song for Someone
psi 04.01

Epitome of the polite, quiet Canadian, trumpeter/flugelhornist Kenny Wheeler has now lived in Great Britain for more than a half century. During that time he’s gone from playing in large dance and bebop bands to working with international free music ensembles to creating a modified synthesis of all those influences as his own music.

This direct reissue of a 1973 LP may have been when it was first released the most conventional item on what was then guitarist Derek Bailey’s and saxophonist Evan Parker’s Incus label. Wheeler had already played free music with drummer John Stevens and was soon to begin an association with experimenters like American reedist Anthony Braxton and the German-based Globe Unity Orchestra. But except for a couple of tracks, the pieces he wrote for this date mostly meld his big band past with his moody, reflective streak.

That low-spirited attitude was artistically best reflected in the trio Azimuth he founded later in the 1970s with pianist John Taylor and vocalist Norma Winstone. SONG FOR SOMEONE’s present-day fascination comes from how Wheeler, who said “the musicians came first and then the music”, mixed explorers and mainstreamers without fissure. On one hand are free musicians like Bailey and Parker, percussionist Tony Oxley, trombonist Malcolm Griffin and saxist Mike Osborne. On the other are modern mainstreamers like Taylor, Winstone and a brass section that could have played similar licks on tunes Wheeler arranged for John Dankworth’s or Maynard Ferguson’s big bands.

To be honest, only one tune, the 15¼-minute “The Good Doctor” can be termed Free Jazz, and it’s also the only one where Griffin, Parker and Bailey all make an appearance. Parker also takes a characteristic solo filled with multiphonic trills on “Causes are Events”, though. But with that theme shaped more by Taylor’s springy, light-fingered electric piano fills and Winstone’s airy soprano — not to mention horn riffs that could have been safely played by Toronto’s Boss Brass — Parker’s reed interjections would have been linked to 1960s psychedelic freak outs by most in 1973.

“The Good Doctor” is the real — free — thing, however, and begins with a couple of minutes of squealing circular breathing from Parker and flat-picking from Bailey. Although Wheeler’s almost heraldic solo and the flattened cymbal work that introduce supple brass lines sashaying from one side to the other are pretty standard, soon one trombonist — Griffith? — breaks through. He double tongues while Taylor double times, and the trumpets riff out a chromatic counter theme. Exposing a big band vamp in full roar, the other bandmen then give space to hearty sax solo — from Osborne perhaps — that introduces intense, Booker Ervin-style honks, growls and squeals as Oxley knocks out powerful Elvin Jones-like rumbles and bounces. By the time the tune ends with a protracted, high-pitched brass crescendo, Wheeler has proven that he can write a composition that swings as much as it seeks.

Mostly characterized by brassy trills and chromatic leaps, a walking bass line and emblematic 1970s tinny electric piano work, the other large ensemble work is more closely allied to Dankworth (John) than Dixon (Bill). Someone does take a well-paced slurry trombone solo, and another trumpeter — Wheeler himself? — produces some bent. squealing notes on “Toot-Toot”. But that tune’s resemblance to John Coltrane’s “Cousin Mary” and the ballad that follows it makes clear that the majority of material could have been played by any well-constituted large group of the time.

Finally, Winstone’s lyrical soprano and light scatting and humming on “Nothing Changes” — an unfortunate title for a date like this — suggests Cleo Laine’s show biz-oriented singing with Dankworth’s band.

Most interesting historically, especially for proof of how creative Parker and Wheeler were at that juncture, SONG FOR SOMEONE is a valuable addition to Wheeler’s slim discography. But, especially in comparison to other Wheeler dates of that era, it shouldn’t be inflated to be more than it was mean to be — a showcase for self-expression among friends.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Toot-Toot 2. Ballad Two 3. Song for Someone 4. Causes are Events+ 5. The Good Doctor+* 6. Nothing Changes.

Personnel: Kenny Wheeler (trumpet and flugelhorn); Ian Hammer, Greg Bowen, Dave Hancock (trumpets); Keith Christie, Bobby Lamb, Chris Pyne, David Horler (trombones); Jim Wilson or Malcom Griffiths* (bass trombone); Alfie Reece (tuba); Mike Osborne (alto saxophone); Duncan Lamont, (tenor saxophone and flute); Evan Parker+ (tenor and soprano saxophones); Alan Branscombe (piano or electric piano); John Taylor: (electric piano); Derek Bailey* (guitar); Ron Mathewson: (bass); Tony Oxley (percussion); Norma Winstone (vocals)