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Kenny Wheeler Big Band: The Long Waiting

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More than two decades have passed since the great England-based brass man and composer Kenny Wheeler last led his own big-band recording. But neither time nor encroaching age-Wheeler turned 82 in January-have dimmed the Canadian-born master’s passion for creating large-ensemble compositions marked by a wide range of emotions and a high degree of musical intelligence. Not to mention his still-vital abilities as a horn player: This time he puts down his trumpet and focuses exclusively on mining mellow gold from his flugelhorn.

Joined by 17 top-flight U.K. musicians, plus the superb Diana Torto on wordless vocals and conductor Pete Churchill, Wheeler turns in eight compositions, most new and all bolstered by the inspired individual performances of his bandmates. Wheeler, of course, leads by example, turning in feathery long tones and brittle high-note runs on opening track “Canter N. 6,” all burnished horns rising and falling, sometimes tightly clustered with Torto’s singing. The title track, similarly streaked with melancholy, starts with Wheeler out front, his short, emotive phrases echoed by the band. After a while, the ballad shifts into medium-tempo swing, and more open space for Wheeler’s expressive flugelhorn.

Throughout, the music is cinematic, ambitious and readily recognizable as coming from Wheeler’s pen. From that point of view, The Long Waiting isn’t exactly full of surprises. There are a few unexpected passages though, including Torto’s long scat solo midway through “Enowena,” and a high-contrast moment where John Parricelli’s guitar breaks out on “Canter N. 1/Old Ballad.” Given the long wait for this one, is a quick turnaround for a sequel too much to ask?

Originally Published