|Pete Churchill directing the Big Band at the Kenny Wheeler Memorial
Photo credit: Yazz Ahmed
The “Service of Thanksgiving for the Life of Kenny Wheeler” had been carefully planned by Nick Smart. As had been clear from the Order of Service (which also gives a list of the musicians) published a few days ago, the act of coming together in one place to celebrate Kenny’s life would bring out musicians and listeners in big numbers. And, as Evan Parker mused in his address “for every one person here today, there are hundreds elsewhere touched by his music.”
There had been a lot of forethought and care. The service started with two movements from Trumpet Quartet, played from the baptismal font at the back of the church. One person commented that the sun came out at that moment. The end was poignant and special too, as a recording of Kenny Wheeler playing solo, up in the stratosphere of the trumpet register, echoed round the church.
This was an occasion to which many had brought their talent and their love. The two conductors, Pete Churchill and Nick Smart, always give direction to musicians with huge conviction and energy, but their utter determination to encourage and bring out those magical sounds was more than ever visible yesterday.
The fact that Norma Winstone and Henry Lowther, as frequent soloists, and so many others present, all have Kenny Wheeler’s musical language as part of their musical being, and will take this music forward, and will give it the durable performing tradition it deserves, is something which could – but never should – be taken for granted, particularly on this occasion to which they all brought such commitment, talent and affection.
Every audience member will come away from yesterday with their own feelings and impressions of the music. Mine was that in Kenny Wheeler’s hands, a harmonic sequence is turned into a deep journey into the soul. This is not “playing changes,” it is something purely spiritual, and completely involving. It was true of the opening sequence of Enowena, but this was a thought which came back several times.
The presence of one genuinely international group, consisting of Norma Winstone, Italian pianist Glauco Venier, German-born saxophonist Klaus Gesing, Canadian bassist Jim Vivian, playing Vital Spark, with Norma Winstone’s words in tribute to Kenny, served as a reminder of how international his reach is.
One last minute change was that Ray Warleigh had called in ill earlier in the day. Inhis place, the lead alto duties were taken superbly at the last minute by Pete Hurt, whose eloquent statement of the theme, and solo in Old Ballad were something to treasure.
There were five musicians speaking, Stan Sulzmann, Evan Parker, Dave Horler, John Taylor, and the welcome, prayers and homily were given by Rev. Paul Thomas, the vicar of St James’s.
In the speeches, Dave Horler told remarkable stories, and summed up Kenny Wheeler with his final words: “My Idol. My friend. God bless him.”
Evan Parker, speaking without notes, talked of how it was “difficult to know more about Kenny Wheeler than you could learn through his music.” He also talked about how his later work had involved a “whittling down,” resulting in music that becomes “more direct and speaks from the heart.”
Stan Sulzmann gave a thoughtful and rounded portrait, stressing his kindness, remembering Tony Oxley and Ron Mathewson (who was in the audience), and also acknowledged the role of Kenny’s family who had “given him the space to be consumingly creative.”
The most moving of the addresses was from an emotional John Taylor. One phrase he said, falteringly, and still clearly in awe, after their collaboration of over forty years, perhaps sums up the feeling of the occasion:
“He inspired us all. He was the greatest.”