Had Kenny Wheeler sat out of this unprecedented session with the Hugo Wolf String Quartet—had he not blown a single note on trumpet or flugelhorn, or even hinted at his widely acclaimed gift for improvising—the compositions alone would invite repeat listens. Cases in point: “Nita” and “String Quartet, n.1,” back-to-back Wheeler-penned pieces that comprise the album’s hornless, soulful interlude. Suffice it to say that this album never betrays the fact that it represents a debut of sorts: Wheeler writing for a string quartet.
Happily, listeners aren’t deprived the pleasure of hearing the septuagenarian play in this intimate and challenging setting, contributing to vibrant contrasts and cinematic weaves, often with the help of guest pianist John Taylor. Convinced that sighs are at least as expressive as shouts, Wheeler has never been one to overplay his hand on trumpet. His writing for strings, however, is often dramatically taut, enough so to suggest the suspense of a noir thriller, as the pulsating “Win Some, Lose Some” illustrates. Or it can be sweepingly evocative, as “The Unfortunate Gentleman,” with its tango inflections, proves. Though there are times when Wheeler’s horns play a secondary role, never are we left with the impression that his input is incidental. The depth and charm of his compositions see to that.
Besides, the familiar but still-inspired pairing of Wheeler and Taylor keeps the jazz quotient high. Taylor, who seems to thrive on the harmonic and rhythmic possibilities Wheeler lays out for him, is particularly resourceful when animating the album’s most engaging performance, “The Lucky Lady.”