Album review

Chris Laurence – ‘Kenny Wheeler: Some Gnu Ones’

Chris Laurence – Kenny Wheeler: Some Gnu Ones

(Jazz In Britain, JIB-29-S-Cd. Album review by Mike Collins)

There are many remarkable things about the this release by Chris Laurence, but quite properly it is the 28 minutes of music that take centre stage.

All three pieces were penned by the late great Kenny Wheeler with the bass of Laurence in mind. Two are previously unrecorded, Piece for Double Bass and Low Strings and Baroque Piece. They bookend the session. In between is C-Man, first heard on Wheeler’s Kayak album.

Piece for Double Bass is a mini suite with three movements. In the first, a distinctive bass figure develops over chiming chords from Frank Ricotti’s vibes, evolving into a sinuous melodic line, cushioned, decorated and embellished by a string section of two violas, two cellos and the violin of Rita Manning. A bass solo sounds like a natural extension and intensification of the melody, before Martin France joins on drums in the second section and the ensemble flows and swirls with added momentum, this time a fluid vibes solo extending the ideas. In the final section the tempo slows again and now strings provide the chords and vibes sketch out the melody. The suite is exquisitely paced chamber-like music full of Wheeler’s characteristic resonances and melodic invention. The back-story of the piece is no less compelling. Wheeler gave Laurence a manuscript with the bass part clear, no indication of instrumentation and the final section incomplete. Laurence enlisted the musicological detective skills of Pete Churchill to clarify and realise the full score.

C-Man, familiar from the Kayak recording and a version as Ma Belle Hélène on Widow in The Window gets a vivacious reading with John Parricelli joining Laurence, Ricotti and France. After a rubato statement of the theme by bowed bass, the rolling pulse finds first Ricotti, then Parricelli weaving through the harmony, layering phrases and shading in the musical colours. Laurence unfurls another beautifully sculpted solo.

The atmosphere shifts again with Baroque Piece. Tom Walsh on flugelhorn plays a melancholic, stately melody against a flowing contrapuntal line, from Laurence. They pause for breath and spring into a quietly pulsating groove, Parricelli stroking chords locked with Laurence’s bass line so that together they hint at something like a samba whilst Walsh takes flight. The trio’s sound is full of space and light. It’s an uplifting moment.

This was a deeply personal project for Laurence, recording with musicians with whom he had long associations and family connections, playing the music of Kenny Wheeler with whom he collaborated over decades.

Jazz In Britain who’ve worked with Laurence to release this, describe it as a fitting tribute to Wheeler and indeed it is. The triumph of this recording however is not as a retrospective salute, it is that it is fresh, living, bittersweet, happy-sad, joyous: Kenny Wheeler is present in this music.

Mike Collins is a pianist and writer based in Bath, who runs the jazzyblogman site. Twitter @jazzyblogman

LINK: Kenny Wheeler: Some Gnu Ones at the Jazz in Britain website

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