I’ve had a chance to listen to more tunes by Kenny Wheeler than almost any other jazz artist (save all the usual suspects: Miles, Monk, Coltrane, etc.). I’ve mostly been a casual listener: Wheeler, probably because of his status as an ex-Canadian—he left Canada for England in 1952—seems to be a particular favorite of Ross Porter, whose jazz show I listen to regularly on the CBC. Except in the case of Wynton Marsalis, in jazz quantity never outweighs quality, and, for all the tracks I’ve heard, I have yet to be impressed by Wheeler, even though I appreciate the range and scope of his discography and his skill as an improvisational player. On the whole, Wheeler’s music has always struck me as overly intellectual, far too cerebral; his playing lacks the fire, passion and energy that I associate with jazz at its finest.
But this may just reflect the limits of listening to Wheeler on the radio, where certain kinds of compositions are fated to come across badly. Since signing with ECM in 1975, Wheeler has recorded very few standards, choosing to focus his energies on his own distinctive compositions. Deer Wan (1977), which featured the exceptional line-up of Jan Garbarek on sax, Dave Holland on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums, quickly established Wheeler as a great writer of solos and as a leader who generously distributes time to his sidemen.
Wheeler’s new album A Long Time Ago, follows in the footsteps of his well-received Music for Large and Small Ensembles (1990), which was praised for its grasp of instrumental coloring and tonality. His new record is also significant insofar as it represents one of the few recorded examples of Wheeler’s considerable body of work for larger ensembles. A Long Time Ago is produced by Evan Parker and Stan Sulzmann (both of whom played on Music for Large and Small Ensembles) and features long-time Wheeler associate John Taylor on piano and John Parricelli on guitar—an impressive line-up behind the controls and in front of them, which unfortunately add up to less than the sum of their parts.
Throughout the disc, the solos by Taylor, Parricelli and Wheeler on flugelhorn are gorgeous, packed with emotion and characterized by nuanced and intelligent phrasing. Taylor and Parricelli in particular play off of one another to great effect on the opening track, “The Long Time Ago Suite,” and the melancholic “Ballad for a Dead Child.” But the repeated intervention of the brass chorus made up of trumpets and trombones—eight instruments in total—seems to kill off whatever energy starts to develop. Perhaps I’m simply not appreciative of the large jazz ensemble format, but it seems on the whole to be a detriment rather than a plus in these compositions. The almost romantic lyricism developed by the solo players is repeatedly buried under the imperious, ponderous weight of the chorus. On “Eight Plus Three/Alice My Dear,” for example, Wheeler plays expressively and Parricelli intrudes with some beautiful, fluid melodic lines. Lurking in the background, however, are trumpets that play with all the subtlety of an honor guard blaring out the arrival of a visiting dignitary to the court of a medieval king.
While it’s certainly interesting to hear Wheeler’s compositions for a large ensemble, I think that I’d rather stick to his other, less baroque-sounding work. The second last track, “Gnu Suite,” reprises music first heard on Wheeler’s first album for ECM, Gnu High (1975), which featured Keith Jarrett’s last performance as a sideman. Even though Jarrett seemed to play in a spectacularly cramped fashion on parts of that album, I still think that Wheeler’s music sounds better on the original where it was freed from the restrictions imposed by the large ensemble format.