Round-up: Kenny Wheeler in New York

Four trumpets. Left to right: Kenny Wheeler, Ingrid Jensen,
Dave Douglas, Nick Smart
Nick Smart, Trumpeter and Head of Jazz at the Royal Academy of Music, London writes about Kenny Wheeler’s triumphant visit to New York earlier this month.

Last week I returned from the four night celebration of Kenny Wheeler by Dave Douglas’ Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT). This musician-led, artistically progressive organisation had chosen Kenny as the recipient of its “Award of Recognition” at FONT 2011 – the festival’s ninth year.

FONT has an office full of Wheeler fans, who, for some years, have wanted to honour Kenny. In Nov 2010 a plan to do so finally got set in motion over lunch, following a workshop at the Royal Academy Of Music with Dave Douglas. From that moment on, Mark Wheeler (Kenny’s son) and I worked closely with Dave to make sure it all came together without a hitch. This was how I eventually found myself in such esteemed company at the Jazz Standard in New York, watching ten rapturously received gigs over four nights.

I think I am safe to assume a high level of widely felt respect and admiration for Kenny Wheeler’s music, and quite possibly, a sense of pride in the UK that he has chosen to spend his musical life as a Londoner. And an East Londoner at that! But sometimes, when someone great is around and available with reasonable readiness, it can require a little more effort to remember just how great they are. It’s not that Kenny has been taken for granted over here – he is hugely championed throughout the jazz scene – but nevertheless, to be in New York and witness the emotional warmth and sheer joy that was expressed by audience upon audience at his presence in the city…. was breathtaking.

People had literally flown in from all over America and Canada to witness this rare appearance, all ten shows were completely packed out with minutes of applause at his first appearance on the stage, and often standing ovations to end.

For the famously self-deprecating Kenny, this was an awful lot of attention to soak up! Not to mention, with the great and the good of the New York trumpet community either on the stage or in the audience, a lot of pressure to live up to for a man approaching 82. So if ever there was an occasion for him to pull out some of the most assured performances of the last 10 years, musically and technically, this was it. And that is exactly what he did. Night after night and in every single show, he demonstrated exactly why this enormous honour was being bestowed upon him. He played the most captivating ‘free’ introductions to tunes, showed some beautifully inventive changesplaying and his idiosyncratic soaring intervals were more fluent and secure than ever. It was truly enough to make a UK jazz musician very proud of the fact he is “ours”; something the jazz community over in NY were openly envious of.

Thursday. Dave Douglas had conceived a beautiful mix of ensembles and tributes for the festival. The phenomenal trumpeter and long-time Wheeler fan, Ingrid Jensen, had put together a brass quintet with rhythm-section for the first night. She was joined by trumpeters Tony Kadleck and Jonathan Finlayson as well as Norwich lad turned Lincoln Center superstar, trombonist Elliot Mason. Ingrid had both arranged Kenny’s music and composed music in tribute to him, and there was also a special guest appearance from her sister, saxophonist Christine Jensen who had written a fantastic piece for the occasion. The personal highlight for me was sitting in with Ingrid and Kenny, along with Dave Douglas, to play Kenny’s arrangement for four trumpets of “How Deep is the Ocean”.

Friday/Saturday. John Hollenbeck ’s Large Ensemble featured some incredible guest soloists, from the FONT side were the trumpeters Shane Endsley and Nate Wooley, but also saxophonist Chris Cheek and guitarist Brad Shepik, in fact the whole group was full of wonderful musicians. The band played some of Kenny’s big band pieces before he joined them on stage; “Sea Lady”, “Foxy Trot”, “Kayak” and “Gentle Piece”, plus a characteristically brilliant composition/arrangement John Hollenbeck had done which incorporated the different elements of “Heyoke” before segueing into Kenny’s own arrangement of the piece. I also played in the band on the KW charts as they are for five trumpets. When Kenny himself took to the stage they played a highlight from “Sweet Time Suite” and some of the new 80th Birthday pieces from the recent tour over here in the UK (also recorded for an album due in early 2012).

Saturday. In the afternoon Dave Douglas and I led a workshop on Kenny’s music at New York University. Again there was great attendance from a whole new generation of Wheeler devotees, not only from NYU, but from all the major music schools and jazz departments in the city. It was a pleasure for me to teach with Dave of course, and we had an enlightening session playing through the charts and discussing the music. Kenny joined us half way through and played his classic “Everybody’s Song” along with Dave and me, and he was very open about his working processes to all the students who asked questions.
Kenny Wheeler, Dave Douglas and Nick Smart at the NYU workshop

Sunday evening culminated in a quintet that saw Kenny reunited with his old friend Dave Holland, along with pianist Craig Taborn, saxophonist and quite regular partner to Kenny in the last two years, Jon Irabagon, and the drummer Rudy Royston. This group was astonishing, and again, Kenny more than led from the front. Dave Holland took the announcement duties and mentioned Kenny’s own quote about himself “I don’t say much, but when I do…. I don’t say much.” After the final tune Kenny uncharacteristically reached for the microphone and thanked the band, “they’re almost as good as I thought they were” he said, before adding about himself, “I recently won a poll; old players deserving less recognition!”

Left to right: Craig Taborn, Kenny Wheeler, Dave Holland
I feel privileged to have played some part in helping this festival to happen, and to have been present at it. Dave Douglas himself was incredibly impressive in his organising of the event; he personally looked after Kenny throughout the preparations, right up to meeting us at the airport! The tireless work he put in- along with the team at FONT and the wonderful Ingrid Jensen and John Hollenbeck – to make this happen for Kenny Wheeler, resulted in an occasion that those present will always remember.

Which reminds me of another very un-Kenny like grabbing of the microphone after the last Hollenbeck set: “I’d like to thank the band for playing my music so well, I’ll never forget it…. not for a few days anyway!”

Reports of FONT 2011  from the press and internet:

A New York Times review

– From Dave Douglas’ website – some nice pictures and an interview with Dave

– From the FONT website – the full line-up and an interview with Nick Smart

A post on Peter Hum’s Ottawa Citizen blog

Helen Mayhew’s report on our own Jazz FM

Dave Douglas will be at the Royal Academy of Music as “International Artist in Residence” for one week in January 2012.

There is a public masterclass on Wednesday 25th Jan at 6.00pm and a Gala concert on Thursday 26th Jan at 7.30 – both in the Dukes Hall.

Categories: miscellaneous

2 replies »

  1. It was thrill for us to hear Ken in New York and experience his musicality and good taste up close. Playing those wonderful tunes was a blast! And an education.
    Thanks for all you've done Nick.

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