The last album of Kenny Wheeler.

Recorded at Abbey Road the December before he died, an album where paraphrase and melodic invention, deft little asides and a thoughtfulness in composition and execution are paramount. Songs for Quintet is full of poetry in a sense, the best possible way to remember Wheeler complete in his artistry and in congenial musical company.

The fragility of flugelhorn flush against the framework of guitar in the gently detouring melody of ‘Seventy-Six,’ the opener almost a call and response between Wheeler and the other four musicians. Bassist Chris Laurence and drummer Martin France add a little motion to ‘Jigsaw’ the next track, tenor saxophonist Sulzmann beginning to make his presence felt in partnership with Wheeler, their pairing an important part of the album’s musical organisation. Then guitarist Parricelli opens the ballad ‘The Long Waiting’ next, Laurence a listening accompanist then Wheeler so poignant here the melody a wistful elegy.

An album completely comprised of Wheeler’s own compositions, bassist Laurence opening ‘Canter No 1’ bright and cheerful that big reverberant sound of his adding a sense of moment, and there’s a bounce and skip in Wheeler’s solo here when he comes in, yet serious intent too. France adds a martial introduction to ‘Sly Eyes’ which then becomes a kind of tango, the band dancing to the music of time in more than one sense.

Strikingly ‘1076’ has an apocalyptic beginning provided by Sulzmann and Parricelli the pair going free form and exploratory the saxophonist tentatively jabbing at the top end of his instrument’s range before Wheeler comes in with a dystopian melody line that jolts in its candour, a very satisfying moment adding much drama. ‘Old Time’ begins with Sulzmann at his bluesiest, pulse then building from bass and drums that succeeds in injecting speed, Wheeler joining Sulzmann before taking a solo of his own. ‘Pretty Liddle Waltz’ has a Frisellian beginning and an open feel Wheeler and Sulzmann then taking phrases turn and turn about to tell an unsentimental story the plot of which is a mystery – a quite lovely section the empathy of the pair palpable. Songs for Quintet is completed by ‘Nonetheless’, an adverb as a title somehow appropriately abstract.

Stephen Graham

Released on Monday 12 January

 

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