Holland Joins NEC Jazz Orchestra for Tribute to Kenny Wheeler


Dave Holland (background, second from left) sits in with the NEC Jazz Orchestra under the in Boston on April 21

(Photo: Andrew Hurlbut)

Kenny Wheeler stood short and was most self-effacing, but wrote unerringly for spacious long forms, and left a legacy that was larger than life.

The late Toronto-born trumpeter enjoyed life-long professional interactions with bassist Dave Holland, as young lions on London’s thriving ’60s scene (until Miles Davis hired Holland in 1968) and as label-mates on ECM since the ’80s.

When Wheeler died at 84 in September 2014, it seemed natural that Holland would explore Wheeler’s works during his semiannual residencies at the New England Conservatory. (Wheeler held his own residencies here, for big bands in 1994 and small groups in 2002.) So on April 21, Holland joined with NEC Jazz Orchestra director Ken Schaphorst in performing two extended works that challenged students and raised the bar for compositions seeking spiritual uplift.

Windmill Tilter (1968) and Sweet Time Suite (1990) feature soloists that spar with and soar above a typical big band format. Each spans several balanced sections and runs under 50 minutes. (Holland and Wheeler also shared the stage in their respective bands, as sidemen with Anthony Braxton, John Stevens, Mike Gibbs, John Dankworth’s Big Band and as teachers at Banff [Alberta] Center.)

Windmill Tilter sympathetically modernizes Cervantes’ Don Quixote saga, that of the pious, devoted yet delusional old gent buffeted by life’s scrapes with wounded dignity. At NEC, the title role was filled admirably by Nick Smart, head of jazz at London’s Royal Academy of Music, who played flugelhorn with dashing lyricism and noble sadness. Echoes of Bill Smith’s chordal structure, Gil Evans’ modal harmony and touches of flamenco imbued the suite.

“Kenny let the music wash over you,” said Smart, referring to the piece’s wave-like dynamics and phrasing. Trumpeter David Adewumi aptly executed trademark Wheelerian squibs and squeals, and Aaron Blumenthal’s tenor saxophone made a fine foil.

Sweet Time Suite, a stately hymn of arching lines, was here sung by the poised, formidable Liz Tobias, who lead the ensemble through its paces: alternating cross-section swing, a gentle waltz with lyrics, wistful ballad for tenor sax and cascading brass glissandos that quickly turned fierce.

An especially poignant passage came in “Consolation,” in which an a capella vocal motif planted seeds for a lovely solo bass theme, which was then picked up by piano and Brian Aronow’s pleading tenor solo. After an off-the-cuff free-for-all spearheaded by trombonist Rex Bennett, a sudden hush heralded Ryan Sands’ drum solo, building to a satisfying return.

The trumpet section platooned to share lead duties (mainly Jordan Skomal) and flugelhorn solos (Dan Hersog, Adewumi, Jeff Cox, Alex Quinn.) Schaphorst’s casual grace on the podium allowed these suites to flow with an easy majesty and reflective graciousness.

Wheeler moved to London at 22 and never looked back, though his music often did, capturing Canadian airspace in sweeping themes. In Wheeler’s music, there existed a curious ambivalence of arctic cool and assuring warmth, both forbidding yet appealing. His clarion flugelhorn was instantly identifiable. “Two notes and you knew it’s him!” grinned Holland. Two words from Wheeler himself helped define him: “Everything I do has a touch of melancholy and a touch of chaos to it.”

These suites, too, bear his stamp for a peaceful world order, of intimacy and compassion.

To read a review of Kenny Wheeler’s posthumous ECM release, Songs For Quintet, click here.

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