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Kenny Wheeler/John Taylor: On the Way to Two

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The belated release of these 2005 duo recordings was originally intended to honor trumpeter/flugelhornist Kenny Wheeler on the first anniversary of his death. To that end, pianist Taylor penned a touching tribute to his longtime partner in the British chamber-jazz group Azimuth that’s reproduced on the album’s back cover. Not long after writing those words, however, Taylor himself died, making On the Way to Two a memorial to both players. Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” sensitively rendered, is the sole non-original here; Wheeler’s wistful compositions dominate, interspersed with three short sketches in which Taylor roots around inside the piano and Wheeler plays spooky lines on muted trumpet.

Decades of collaboration made Taylor and Wheeler highly attuned to each other, and their shared sense of telepathy is audible throughout this disc. The way they make the solo section of “Quiso” pitch and yaw like a tempest-tossed schooner is especially striking. Still, Wheeler seems overmatched at times. Taylor’s particle-accelerator approach to improvisation, smashing melodic fragments together and seeing what patterns they make, is brilliant but far more outgoing than Wheeler’s, which tends toward the circumspect. Also, Wheeler’s signature sudden leaps into the stratosphere are more wayward than usual, often only winding up in the troposphere, and yet he continues to attempt them so regularly that it takes on the air of an unhealthy fixation.

All the same, it’s wonderful to hear Wheeler’s cool, melancholy horn again. “Canter #2” and “Fortune’s Child” even offer us the chance to hear it twice, in a manner of speaking, as tasteful use of overdubbing gives both pieces an unexpected emotional climax. Think of the double-tracked conclusion to A Love Supreme, only in a more sedate style.

Originally Published