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Straight No Chaser - A Jazz Show

Welcome to Straight No Chaser, the Award-winning Podcast hosted by Jeffrey Siegel

Sep 26, 2014

Kenny Wheeler, one of the giants of British jazz, died last week at the age of 84.

Born in Canada in 1930, the trumpeter and composer joined the London jazz scene after moving to Britain in 1952. He played in groups alongside the likes of Ronnie Scott, John Dankworth and Tubby Hayes as well becoming part of the free-improvisation movement.

In later life, he was the founding patron of the Junior Jazz programme at the Royal Academy of Music and was the subject of a year-long exhibition by the Academy Museum.  He was honored by the Annual Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT) in 2011, and made a rare New York appearance at that time.

Podcast 447 celebrates the musical vision of Kenny Wheeler, concentrating mainly on his body of work released on ECM Records, where he recorded right albums from 1975 to 1990. He guested on at least three other ECM releases during this period.

My favorite Wheeler recording is his 1968 debut on Fontana Records with the John Dankworth Orchestra, Windmill Tilter: The Story of Don Quixote. His take on the timeless Cervantes  novel, the recording was long considered the “holy grail of British jazz” since it inexplicably went out of print and was not released on CD until 2010.  A nine-part suite, it featured strong ensemble playing, along with two quintet tracks featuring pre-Miles Dave Holland on bass and John McLaughlin on electric guitar. If you haven’t heard it, check it out immediately, and see why singer Norma Winstone once called Wheeler “the Duke Ellington of our times.” 

New England Conservatory's Jazz Studies Department Chair Ken Schaphorst remembers Kenny Wheeler talking about composition at a master class at the school.

The process I go through to write or compose a new melody is this-I get up about 7:00 and don't wash or shave or anything, but put on a bathrobe or dressing gown and take a couple of biscuits, a tea, and sit at the piano which is an old slightly out of tune upright. Then I play through some 4-part Bach Chorales. After that I try, with my limited technique to play through some Bach 2 or 3 part Inventions or maybe Preludes. Then I fumble through some more modern music such as Ravel, Debussy, Hindemith, Bartok or maybe the English Peter Warlock.

And then begins the serious business of trying to compose something. This consists of improvising at the piano for anywhere from 1/2 hour to 3 or 4 hours or even more. What I think I'm looking for during this time is something I'm not looking for. That is, I'm trying to arrive at some semi-trance-like state where the improvising I'm doing at the piano is kind of just flowing through me or flowing past me. I don't mean at all that this is any kind of a religious state but more of a dream-like state. And then, if I do manage to arrive at this state, then I might play something that catches the nondream-like part of me by surprise. It may only be 3 or 4 notes. But it's like the dream-like part of me managed to escape for a second or two from the awake part of me and decided to play something of its own choice. But the awake part of me hears that little phrase and says "What was that? That's something I didn't expect to hear, and I like it." And that could be the beginning of your new melody.

But there is no guarantee that you will reach this semi-dream-like state. After many hours you may not get there. But you might take a break, or you might have a little argument with your wife, and go back to the piano a little bit angry and bang out a phrase in anger which makes you say "Wait a minute! What was that?" There doesn't seem to be any sure way of reaching this state of mind where you play something that surprises yourself. I just know that I can't start the day all fresh at the piano at 7:00 and say to myself "And now I will compose a melody." It seems I have to go through this process which I described.

Song selections for the Podcast include:

Kenny Wheeler Quintet – “Everybody’s Song But My Own” from Flutter By, Butterfly.

Kenny Wheeler – “Peace For Five” from Deer Wan.

Kenny Wheeler, Norma Winstone and the London Vocal Project – “Humpty Dumpty” from Mirrors.

Kenny Wheeler Quintet – “Hotel Le Hot” from The Widow in the Window.

Kenny Wheeler, Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette – “Smatter” from Gnu High.

Kenny Wheeler, Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell and Dave Holland – “Kind of Gentle” from Angel Song.

Kenny Wheeler with the John Dankworth Orchestra – “Don No More” from Windmill Tilter: The Story of Don Quixote