For most of his career, Canadian-born, British-based Kenny Wheeler was known chiefly as a trumpeter and bandleader. His was hardly the typical jazz trajectory—how many other jazz musicians have a list of collaborators that includes John Dankworth, Anthony Braxton, Lee Konitz, Joni Mitchell, Bill Bruford, and David Sylvian?—nor was his approach to composition and improvisation in any way business as usual.
Over time, though, Wheeler became more revered as a composer than a performer. To some degree, this was because his acolytes wound up in teaching positions, but it mostly derived from his unorthodox yet specific approach to harmony. Always highly melodic, he encouraged soloists to play down harmonic abstractions in favor of a more lyric, vocalized line.
Hard Rubber Orchestra’s Kenny Wheeler: Suite for Hard Rubber Orchestra makes that point in spades. The long-running, Vancouver-based big band directed by trumpeter John Korsrud commissioned what turned out to be Wheeler’s last major piece, an epic, elegiac work for big band and voice, the latter provided by Wheeler’s frequent collaborator Norma Winstone. To be honest, calling it “big band” music is a bit demeaning, as Wheeler’s thematic expanse frequently verges on the symphonic. But by giving Winstone’s voice such a dominant role, Wheeler’s score makes that harmonic expanse seem deceptively intimate; it’s like we’re listening to music for thousands, played by barely more than a dozen.
Invisible Sounds: For Kenny Wheeler makes an even stronger case for the value of individual voices in Wheeler’s work. Led by two longstanding Wheeler devotees, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and tenor saxophonist Steve Treseler, this quintet (rounded out by Jensen’s usual group with Geoffrey Keezer on piano, Martin Wind on bass, and Jon Wikan on drums) seems, on the surface, to underscore the writerly aspect of Wheeler’s legacy, framing their improvisation in meticulously scored arrangements.
Listen closely, however, and it’s clear that the structures are merely springboards, providing melodic momentum for the soloists’ personal inventions. Jensen is particularly adept at this, rethreading themes from Wheeler’s writing into a richly melodic tapestry, but she’s hardly the only standout. Wind offers a lovely bit of mood-setting with his arco introduction to “Gentle Piece – Old Ballad,” while the New Orleans-style groove grafted onto “Old Time” not only affords Treseler plenty of room to shine, but emphasizes just how broad the interpretive potential of Wheeler’s works can be.