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Invisible Sounds
For Kenny Wheeler

by Robin Kidson



Robin Kidson reflects on a new album Invisible Sounds: For Kenny Wheeler by Ingrid Jensen and Steve Treseler:


Kenny Wheeler


In the early 1970s, I was a student at the London School of Economics. In retrospect, I spent too little time studying economics and far too much time as chair of the School’s Jazz Society. Each term, the Society put on a wide range of concerts involving the cream Kenny Wheelerof the London jazz scene at the time. I remember there was a nucleus of versatile musicians who used to appear in various combinations. So, the members of, say, the Mike Osborne Octet were essentially the same people, give or take, who would turn up a few weeks later as part of the Mike Gibbs Big Band or the Brotherhood of Breath – people like Osborne, Alan Skidmore, Chris Spedding, Mike and Chris Pyne, Harry Beckett, John Stevens – and a Canadian trumpeter called Kenny Wheeler. 

Kenny Wheeler always came well dressed and groomed but conventionally so – he may even, heavens above, have worn a tie occasionally. He was quite diffident and shy. But when he played, he was absolutely sure of himself without in any way being arrogant or wanting to hog the stage. At the time, I hadn’t heard anything like it – not Miles or Dizzy or Don Cherry or Ian Carr or any of the other trumpet players I’d come to admire - with a clarity and easy virtuosity which could apparently play any style from free to mainstream.

Kenny Wheeler was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1930. He moved to Britain in 1952 where he became a jobbing jazz musician playing with a number of different jazz groups throughout the fifties and sixties, most notably in John Dankworth’s band. Dankworth encouraged Wheeler’s composing ambitions and, in 1969, released Windmill Tilter, a concept album based around the Don Quixote legend with all tracks composed by Wheeler.


Listen to The Cave of Montesinos from that album.







Wheeler’s reputation both, as trumpeter and composer, steadily grew and, in 1975, he began a long association with Manfred Eicher and his ECM label. The first main fruit of this was the album, Gnu High, featuring Keith Jarrett, no less, on piano in his last session as a sideman. In 1977, ECM released Deer Wan which Wheeler intimated was his favourite album. Again, it featured some illustrious sidemen – Jan Garbarek, John Abercrombie, Ralph Towner, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette.

In 1977, Wheeler came together with singer, Norma Winstone, and pianist, John Taylor, to form the band, Azimuth which also recorded for ECM and lasted, off and on, into the nineties. Norma Winstone often sang with Wheeler in other collaborations. Part of her repertoire is a form of wordless singing which isn’t exactly scat – it’s much smoother than that and genuinely sounds just like another instrument.

Azimuth was just one of the many settings in which Wheeler played and wrote throughout his career. He was just as much at home playing and writing for big bands as with smaller groups. This aspect was highlighted in an edition of the BBC TV arts programme, Omnibus, in 1977.




Here is an extract which includes some footage of his big band in full glorious swing. Incidentally, it says much for his reputation in the seventies that even the notoriously jazzphobic BBC felt able to devote a whole programme to him.





Wheeler’s skills in working in big band settings are shown most clearly in the critically acclaimed Music For Large and Small Ensembles, released by ECM in 1990. It features both John Taylor and Norma Winstone as well as some of the other big beasts of the international jazz scene such as Evan Parker, John Abercrombie, Dave Holland, Peter Erskine… the list goes on. The Guardian’s John Fordham called this Wheeler’s “…greatest triumph – a fusion of North American folk music, abstract jazz, and imaginative expansion of the tone-palette and harmonic resources of a jazz lineup”.


Listen to an extract - Part IV for P.A..




Throughout his career, Kenny Wheeler often explored the freer boundaries of jazz. He played, for example, with the Spontaneous Jazz Ensemble and Alexander von Schlippenbach’s Global Unity Orchestra; and from 1971 to 1976, was part of Anthony Braxton’s Quartet. Here is a video with him blowing up a storm with Braxton at Montreux in 1975. The bassist is Dave Holland, another musician with whom Wheeler often collaborated.




The interest in free jazz often came out in his compositions in which he gave musicians a high degree of improvisational freedom: “Everything I do,” he said, “has a touch of melancholy and a touch of chaos to it. I write sad songs and then I get the musicians to destroy them.”

Kenny Wheeler died in September 2014 at the age of 84. Now, a later generation of musicians has come together to play Kenny Wheeler’s music and celebrate his legacy. Canadian-born trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and Seattle-based saxophonist Steve Treseler have recently released an album on the Whirlwind label called Invisible Sounds: For Kenny Wheeler. They take seven Wheeler compositions and offer Invisible Sounds albumnew interpretations without straying too far from the originals. They are joined by Geoffrey Keezer (piano), Martin Wind (double bass), and Jon Wikan (drums).

Ingrid Jensen has been steadily building an international reputation for a number of years. In a memorable phrase, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, called her trumpet tone “highly distinctive, like oiled silk”. Treseler is a younger, less well known musician but his work is being increasingly acclaimed. Both musicians have been heavily influenced by Kenny Wheeler. Treseler says that “the news of Kenny’s death had a big effect on me and I reached out to Ingrid about putting together a tribute concert, and that conversation evolved into making a record. Ingrid and I are both devoted Kenny fans and we both had the opportunity to work with him in person”. When asked once about current trumpet players he admired, Kenny Wheeler named Ingrid Jensen.

Jensen and Treseler approach their project with gusto, confidence and virtuosity. Treseler makes an interesting point about interpretations of Wheeler’s music: “Sometimes players approach it quite delicately, not getting the energy and power, but with this rhythm section, we weren’t risking being too precious – it became hard-hitting and grooving”. That hard hitting grove is heard straightaway in the opening track, Foxy Trot, from Wheeler’s 1984 ECM album, Double Double You. The band is joined by Ingrid’s sister, Christine, on soprano sax. The whole is an exciting, up tempo performance driven along by a compelling riff and featuring some boisterous solos. Typical of Kenny Wheeler compositions, all the bits seem to fit together perfectly.


The album finishes with a live performance of Foxy Trot (played live in this video).




On two of the album’s tracks, 546 and Gentle Piece/Old Ballad, the band is joined by vocalist Kate Jacobson who does a good job in providing some Norma Winstone-style wordless singing which so often featured in Kenny Wheeler’s work. 546 is also notable for some fine piano from Geoffrey Keezer. Gentle Piece/Old Ballad is an amalgam of two separate Wheeler compositions and features some nice trumpet/sax interplay as well as  interesting sound effects from both Jensen on trumpet and Martin Wind on bass.

Old Time (from Wheeler’s last ECM album, Songs For Quintet released in 2015) is another up-tempo, exuberant live recording. Kind Folk has Jensen at her lyrical best with virtuosic, note-filled playing and some particularly nice freer touches of which Wheeler would surely have approved.


We can hear the track ......




Ingrid Jensen and Steve Treseler


Everybody’s Song But My Own is a showcase for Treseler, with his solo displaying touches of melancholy and touches of chaos as well as something approaching just sheer joy. Where Do We Go From Here has the whole ensemble gently swinging along in its well-oiled way.

Two short tracks on the album are not Wheeler compositions – Duet is by Treseler and, as the name suggests, is a memorable sax-trumpet duet. Ingalude, is a slow, atmospheric, and beautifully played piece written by Jensen.

The last word belongs to Steve Treseler who says of Kenny Wheeler, “He’s unmistakable – in a category of one. You have jazz styles like swing or be-bop, and some artists are just their own thing, like Mingus, Ellington, Monk – and Kenny has got that. Defined by a host of elements, not least the haunting timbre of his instrument and that ECM spaciousness, he really developed his own harmonic language. Invisible Sounds has given us a deeper understanding of his music, with our own stamp on it. If more people discover Kenny Wheeler as a result, that’s all good with us”. And Amen to that.

Ingrid Jensen and Steve Treseler




For further details of Invisible Sounds, and how to get hold of it, click here. and here is a trailer of the album with Jensen and Treseler talking about the recording and their love of Wheeler’s music, together with extracts from some of the tracks..





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Philip Larkin's Jazz
Free Improvisation - Pyne and Grew
Video Juke Box
Jazz As Art

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