I probably met Kenny Wheeler around 1967. As you travel your musical path you meet certain musicians who play a significant role in shaping your understanding of musical possibilities. I was lucky enough to meet Kenny early in my life and his work as a composer and player has been a source of inspiration since then.
We both played with drummer John Stevens in the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. The first time I played his compositions was at a recording session for a suite he wrote called Windmill Tilter. It was played by the John Dankworth Big Band of which Kenny was a member at that time. The reason I played on the recording was that the regular bass player slightly injured his finger the day before the session. Dankworth called Kenny to find out what he wanted done and Kenny recommended me for the recording.
His is music of great beauty and beautifully crafted. He’s created a very personal musical language that is perfectly suited to the things he wants to express emotionally. Sometimes he will create a very simple melody that sails through a complex set of changes. My favorite recording of his, if I have to choose one, is the Suite that is featured on the album Music For Large And Small Ensembles. He wrote it for the band that played on his 60th birthday tour in 1990.
When I thought about who I wanted in my first group (heard on Jumpin’ In) Kenny was the first to come to mind. I wanted a group that could cover a wide range of music. Musicians that each had a strong individual voice but also could work together in a supportive way. Kenny and I had been playing together in Anthony Braxton’s quartet and other projects so we had a strong connection.
Kenny turned 80 recently and we played a concert at The Royal Academy Of Music to a sold out theater. There were two sections to the concert. The first half featured Kenny in a small group settings and the second half was played by the big band. I played in the first half with Kenny, John Taylor (piano) and Martin France (drums). Then we were joined by Stan Sulzman and Julian Arguelles on saxophones and for the final piece added Evan Parker on tenor sax. The big band had several players that had worked with Kenny for many years. Norma Winstone voice, Derek Watkins, Henry Lowther, Nick Smart and John Barklay on trumpets, Duncan Lamont, Martin Hathaway, Evan, Stan, and Julian on saxes, Mark Nightingale, Dave Horler, Trevor Mires and Dave Stewart on trombones, Nikki Illes and John Horlor piano, John Parricelli (guitar), Chris Lawrence (bass) Martin on drums, and Pete Churchill (conductor).
(Kenny’s on the far right of the picture, next to his wife Doreen. To my right in the picture is my wife, Clare.)