Originally posted 26 February 2007
Kenny Wheeler and The John Dankworth Orchestra
Fontana : 1968
KW, fluegelhorn, arrangement; Tony Coe, clarinet, tenor sax; John McLaughlin, guitar; Dave Holland, bass; John Spooner, drums.
Orchestra: Hank Shaw, Les Condon, Derek Watkins, Henry Lowther, trumpet; John Dankworth, alto sax; Tony Roberts, bass clarinet, tenor sax; Ray Swinfield, flute, alto sax, baritone sax; Tony Coe, clarinet, tenor sax; Michael Gibbs, Chris Pyne, trombone; Alf Reece, Dick Hart, tuba; Alan Branscombe, Bobby Cornford, piano; Tristan Fry, conga, vibraphone.
Drew LeDrew: Kenny Wheeler, his hero? Surprising for someone as avant and singular as Parker to pick someone who has often sounded conservative to my ears.
CJC: Well, as he played selections from Wheeler’s oeuvre — the mid-’70s group with Braxton, to more straight ahead work — it started to make sense. The sheer range of the guy’s playing was impressive. But Windmill Tilter was the one that won me over. It’s not that it’s so avant on the surface, but rather the compositional care, the meshing of the small band feel with full orchestra. The unusual textures.
DLD: William Gass once said about the great Eastern European writer Danilo Kis that it was the “local quality of the prose” that counted in his work. The word choice, the syntax, the turn of phrase. And that’s the case here.
CJC: Speaking of “local quality,” what was in the water in London at the time? A few years after this, Wheeler pops up in John Surman’s Tales of the Algonquin, another monumental work rich with historical and literary references.
DLD: Post-Coltrane, maybe the UK isn’t suffering the anxiety of influence to quite the same extent, and musicians there are free to make the grand statement, using home-grown locutions? Here the syntax comes through in the unusual choices of voices, the layers of orchestration, the slippery rolling rhythms, the way the solos play against the ensemble. Despite its 1968 provenance, it has something of a ’70s feel about it. There’s a brightness to the colors of the tracks. Yellows, greens, oranges, maybe some browns. Entirely pleasant.
CJC: Pleasant and bright — not adjectives usually used to describe adventurous jazz. Insisting on lightness over the heaviosity and the do-or-die spiritualism of most free jazz, this music makes a virtue of its nimbleness. That’s hard to do that without slipping into vapidity or soppiness. Of course it helps to have players like Dave Holland and John McLaughlin alongside you
DLD: It’s not a stretch to say that Wheeler and Co. capture the overall lightness of the Quixote story. Especially the first part of the novel – the loping adventures, the sly sense of satire, etc.
CJC: It does miss the self-reflexive part of the second half of the novel – the savage humor and dark undercurrents – but it can’t do everything. What’s here is more than enough.