We were promised a smorgasbord of jazz royalty at this gig, and we certainly got it: great musicians, great tunes, great arranging and great playing. What’s not to like? It was something to do with the vibe: not only has Kenny Wheeler passed, but John Taylor too. They are sorely missed, and perhaps all those on stage were still going through their grieving processes, leaving the overall mood understandably sad. They played tunes Kenny liked such as ‘Foxy Trot’, they played tracks he wrote like ‘Nobody’s Song But My Own’ and ‘Wintersweet’, and they improvised like crazy – especially the free jazz trio Foxes Fox led by Evan Parker, who asked trumpeter Percy Pursglove to join them on stage for a short set. There was everything from Ralph Towner playing solo acoustic guitar to die for, through to Nick Smart’s trumpet choir, who came out on the upper balcony and cleansed our palates from time to time with fabulously close-harmony versions of Kenny tunes.
Once you got past the sense that it all felt a bit like a wake, you could sit back and enjoy Norma Winstone’s winsome interpretations of some pretty heavy tunes that recalled her albums from the 1970s with Wheeler and Taylor on ECM, led by Dave Holland impeccable on bass, Martin France subtle as ever on drums, the spirited Mark Lockhart on saxes, John Parricelli sounding effortless on guitar and Nikki Iles playing some divine Taylor-infused solos on piano. There was a certain amount of hesitation on Winstone and Holland’s part, as if neither of them had quite decided beforehand who was really compering the gig, but between them they nevertheless conveyed their sincere and lasting admiration for Britain’s favourite (adopted) jazz legend. They ushered on the London Vocal Project for a couple of great numbers from one of Wheeler’s last albums, Mirrors, namely ‘Humpty Dumpty’ and ‘The Lover Mourns’, and later Lockheart was joined on stage by Stan Sulzmann, who also played on the incredible 1990 albumMusic for Large & Small Ensembles, to create a two-sax line up facing Nick Smart and fellow trumpeter Henry Lowther for the final few numbers.
Of all the musicians, it’s probably Smart who now carries the Wheeler mantle more than most, not only as a sympathetic trumpeter with a similar talent for creating incredible tunes, but also as Head of Jazz at the Royal Academy of Music, a department where Wheeler was involved as patron of the Junior Jazz course for many years. Holland was the most recent artist-in-residence there from 2013-2015, so had been working closely with Wheeler right up until his death in September 2014. They left the final word to Wheeler, the audience pin-drop-silent as a recording of his unaccompanied flugelhorn soared into the concert hall, sublime and never to be repeated, as if he was playing to us still from the other side.
– Sarah Chaplin