Kenny Wheeler Large Ensemble in New York
Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, still a technical marvel on his instrument at age 72, came into Birdland for a three-night engagement with his new Large Ensemble, a 19-piece band that was light on its feet while providing plenty of backbone for Wheeler's uncommonly melodic compositions. Premiering an extended new work, "Sweet Ruby Suite," while also trotting out older compositions like the lyrical, meditative "Gentle Piece" and the vibrantly swinging "Kayak" (both from the 1992 Ah Um recording Kayak), Wheeler delivered with awesome command. Whether blowing over the whole ensemble playing at a dynamic peak or whispering through his horn in a more intimate duet encounter with pianist Frank Carlberg, his astounding range, trademark high-note squeals and full, lovely tones cut through the air like a clarion call.
The radiant singer Luciana Souza, seated directly to Wheeler's right on stage, contributed wafting wordless vocals that beautifully complemented the trumpeter's uncanny lyricism while adding an ethereal, haunting presence to the proceedings. The vocalist was also prominently featured on tenor saxophonist/conductor Andrew Rathburn's "Power Politics Suite," an ambitious, extended work that incorporates the politically charged, thought-provoking verse of Canadian writer and poet Margaret Atwood (author of The Handmaid's Tale).
Swinging the band through the labyrinth of shifting harmonic movement inherent in Wheeler and Rathburn's music was drummer Jeff Hirshfield, a dynamo behind the kit who exhibited a kindred connection with rhythm tandem mate John Hebert on bass. Key soloists who added fire to Wheeler's music throughout the set were tenor saxophonist Adam Kolker, baritone saxophonist Jay Branford, alto saxophonist Doug Yates, guitarist Ben Monder and bari burner Jay Branford, who took a blistering solo on "Politics Suite."
And through it all, Wheeler demonstrated with equal parts fire and finesse why he is one of the great improvisers in jazz today.