How can it be that one of the defining voices in European contemporary jazz is now an octogenarian? As he hobbled onto the stage of a sparsely packed Hall One at The Sage last Wednesday night, supported by a natty black walking stick and the helping arms of John Taylor, you'd no longer put money on Kenny Wheeler if he ever needed to catch a bus in a hurry. I'm certainly not naive enough to assume that the musicians I love and admire are blessed with Peter Pan's DNA, but the spectacle came to me as something of a shock. The last time I saw Wheeler lead a big band, around twenty years ago on the CMN Music For Large & Small Ensembles tour, most of these guys looked like they were in their prime. Not exactly ravaged by time, the effects of a couple of decades of ageing give certain sobering perspective on your own place in the world.
Even if Wheeler hadn't fluffed most of his notes on the opening theme, I'd have been feeling more than a little melancholy. As the night wore on it became easier to accept the flugelist's limitations as a player. He warmed up, and he sensibly stuck to the lower end of the horn for much of the time. Despite the shorter solos and distinct lack of the trademark stratospheric interval leaps, his sound remains unmistakeable and his writing never less than glorious.
Inevitably, with some of the lustre removed from his soloing, it was his compositions that were the real stars of the show. Old pieces such as 'Mark Time', 'Double, Double You' and 'Old Ballad' rubbed shoulders with instant classics written specially for the tour. Despite ample outwards evidence of Wheeler's waning physical capabilities, there's no doubting his mental acuity. Even if he hung up his horn tomorrow, I'm sure he'd have many telling contributions to make as a writer in the years ahead.
Wheeler's band was packed with familiar faces - Evan Parker, Henry Lowther, Ray Warleigh, Duncan Lamont, Julian Argüelles, Chris Laurence, Stan Sulzmann et al - but it was John Taylor who was the standout soloist of the night. Sounding more highly charged than he has at any time I've heard him since the '70s, the pianist more than made up for vocalist Diana Torto's over-exposure. Superficially similar in style to Norma Winstone, she clearly doesn't live and succeed by the same exquisite judgement and 'less is more' credo. This may come to Torto later, and despite my comments she certainly has an extraordinary range.
Whatever sadness I may have felt about the diminution of Wheeler's powers and the tangible passing of decades, I instantly feel better when I compare his highly personal and original music to that found on the CD reviewed below...
OSIAN ROBERTS & STEVE FISHWICK QUINTET
On The Up And Up
HARD BOP RECORDS (HBR 33003)
The Hit; I Loves You Porgy; Hand Grenade; A Pocketful of Grease; The Road To Philly; Now That I Am So In Love; The Knife; Swanee River.
Steve Fishwick (t/flh); Osian Roberts (ts); Olivier Slama (p); Dave Chamberlain (b); Matt Fishwick (d); Matt Home (d on 2,4,6,7).
There is something a little discomforting about this record. Recorded in Pontypridd in 2006, it sounds for all the world like the first edition of The Jazz Messengers at the time of their now legendary 1955 engagement a the Café Bohemia. Just as there’ll always be Civil War re-enactment groups, it shouldn’t really be too surprising to find jazz’s rich traditions receiving similar attention. Hearing relatively young men tackling pre-modal fare seems a little unusual in today’s world, and the degree of replication found here is quite phenomenal.
Opening the disc we have ‘The Hit’, and with very few leaps of the imagination we could be listening to the soundtrack to an action sequence in a mid ‘50s film noir. I’m always partial to a bit of that, and as an opening statement it leaves no doubt that Fishwick and Roberts have this era nailed. ‘A Pocketful of Grease’ is tight funky ¾ blues, Fishwick giving a sizeable nod in his solo to Donald Byrd. His flugelhorn feature on Gershwin’s ‘Porgy’ shows great maturity and poise, whilst co-leader Roberts’ ‘The Road To Philly’ makes a sturdy vehicle for some elegant Mobley-esque tenor. Pianist Slama shows his appreciation of period chord voicings on a trio take of Harold Ouseley’s rarely played ‘Now That I Am So In Love’, whilst ‘The Knife’ is a dedication to Pepper Adams, another genre-based ‘original’ which openly references its source.
I’m not sure how many would guess the decade in which this disc was recorded in a blindfold test, so fastidious is the group’s approach. The graphic design on the ‘artwork’ may be a mite too faux, but sound engineer Daniel Edwards can take lots of credit for his authentic sound recording techniques. Avoiding the dramatic studio separation of instruments, a vintage character is particularly noticeable in the ensemble passages. In summary then, whilst the much loved originals in my collection from Messrs. Dorham, Mobley and Silver & Co. are in no way improved here, it would be quite a different proposition to catch Fishwick and Roberts belting this stuff out live. The Valleys are alive, with the sound of hard bop anthems!
Fred Grand (originally published in Jazz Review)