The great trumpeter and composer Kenny Wheeler, who died yesterday, appeared a number of times at St George’s, where his unmistakeable flugelhorn sound – simultaneously full-bodied and half-formed, plangent (that inevitable trumpet adjective), melancholy, always distinctive – found a perfect complement in the hall’s celestial reverb.
He performed with his own orchestra (a big band including Lee Kontiz, who Kenny had first encountered as a teenager in his native Canada, when he attended a Claud Thornhill gig) in a celebration of his 75th birthday in 2005, playing music from the superb ECM double album ‘Music For Large and Small Ensembles’ plus a special BBC commission, and the following year in a double bill of two Wheeler bands, the drummer-less trio Ordessa and a less restrained quintet. He also appeared with pianist Fred Hersch, singer Norma Winstone and percussionist Paul Clarvis in the group 4 in Perspective.
But my favourite Wheeler performance, and one of my favourite jazz performances ever, was the 1999 date by the quintet of Kenny, Lee Konitz, bassist Dave Holland and guitarist John Abercrombie (replacing the album’s Bill Frisell) playing music from ‘Angel Song’. There’s an interview with the publicity-averse Wheeler (a shy, quietly humorous man) that I did at the time here, and a review of the show here.
One other moment stands out, from a Dave Holland octet concert at St George’s that I can’t manage to date, maybe about 10 years ago. It was a mixed American and Anglo band and when Wheeler had completed one of his quite outstandingly beautiful and perfectly constructed solos, the saxophonist Antonio Hart turned to his fellow band-members and then to the audience and mouthed a silent “WTF” reaction accompanied by a too-hot-to-handle mime. It eloquently spoke for us all, for Kenny Wheeler was a giant of contemporary jazz, yet many US jazzmen had barely heard of him. Happily, that sound lives on in Bristol through the example of trumpeter, composer and bandleader Andy Hague, who studied with Kenny in the Banff summer school in Canada, and whose own excellent original work always brings that handy adjective “Wheeleresque” to mind.