Review: Kenny Wheeler Quintet

Kenny Wheeler, Jon Irabagon, John Taylor, Michael Janisch, Andrew Bain
(Pizza Express Dean Street, February 16th 2011, first night of two)

This gig was always going to bring out the best in every player right from the start. Jon Irabagon had written a preview for us saying how much he was looking forward to playing with both Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor. It was the kind of gig which musicians had depped out their other work for, just for a chance to be in the audience. Or in two cases scampered down the whole length of the M1 to get to. It was the kind of gig where a drummer (in this case the ultra-responsive and creative Andrew Bain) will sit down at his kit, roll his shoulders and survey the scene…. and find he doesn’t have to look beyond the second row of the audience for inspiration – because he’s looking straight out at Peter Erskine.

With two exceptions, the tunes were by Kenny Wheeler. Each one of these tunes, with their quirky asymmetries, their irresistible lines, their uplifting sadness has the sheen and durability of a unique diamond. This is music which will still be played in a hundred years’ time. The musicians know what a privilege it is to share this music with its creator. You can absolutely feel that sense of occasion, right from the very first note.

Just one example: “The Jigsaw” last night was pure joy. Wheeler and Irabagon followed each other in canon in the tune, then in his solo Kenny Wheeler first toyed with the sinuous melodic figures in the tune, then started to stretch the intervals like elastic, reaching up, extending. Then John Taylor’s solo was the poetry of absolute rhythmic freedom. This was musical completeness.

This was the first time I had heard Jon Irabagon live. It is in the nature of the modern player to have absorbed a wide range of influences, but Irabagon knows how to portray voices which are so contrasting, they almost seem compete with each other for attention. The crowd seemed to take him best to its heart when he was at his most Breckerish, constructing and firing off a profusion of shapes and patterns. But wait, that’s just part of the story: there is an Albert Ayler in him who demands to have his say. And maybe even a gutsy Bennie Wallace too. I felt like an autograph-hunter wrong-footed by finding I’d been given more than one signature. He’s Othello, but here he is as Iago too. This is definitely my problem rather than Irabagon’s. At a first hearing I know that I’ve heard a lot of different parts, and not yet identified the sum of them, the whole. Which is to say that Irabagon is a fascinating saxophonist who absolutely deserves to be heard.

Bassist Michael Janisch had assembled this fabulous project. Mike deserved every whoop of applause which greeted the end of his bass solos. Contributions like his – both as bassist and as producer – to the musical life of our great city are beyond price. The same quintet is at the Pizza Express tonight. Don’t miss it.


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3 replies »

  1. What a beautiful review of a truly beautiful gig. “Uplifting sadness” indeed. Though last nights example of true Soul music left us all departing Dean Street with joyful, uplifted spirits. Kenny presided and pronounced his flowing lyricism as a wise elder of the jazz-fellowship. Even his silence seemed to have something to say. This is a gig, about which, we shall gladly tell our grand-children.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with Steve, what a great review, I feel from reading it that I was at the gig again! I'm so happy that I was there last night, I genuinely felt that I have seen a concert of historic proportions, and one I'll never forget. Mr. Wheeler sounded supreme last night, each note had such an impact. Pure beauty.

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