Songs for Quintet (ECM)

Kenny Wheeler

Released January 14, 2015

DownBeat Four-and-a-Half-Star Review

AllMusic Favorite Jazz Albums 2015




Songs for Quintet, Kenny Wheeler’s final recording, features compositions of relatively recent vintage, plus a fresh approach to “Old Time” – which the Azimuth trio used to play – and “Nonetheless”, a piece introduced on Angel Song. The album was recorded at London’s Abbey Road Studios with four of Kenny’s favourite players. Stan Sulzmann, John Parricelli, Chris Laurence and Martin France work together marvellously as an interactive unit, solo persuasively, and provide support for the tender and lyrical flugelhorn of the bandleader.
The session turned out to be the last occasion on which Kenny played with other musicians. He was not well enough to participate in what was intended to be a celebratory quintet gig shortly after the recording. If age and illness temper the strength of his sound on Songs for Quintet, the melodic imagination and the improvisational courage remain; the flugelhorn soloist could not be anybody but Kenny Wheeler. His exchanges with Stan Sulzmann throughout the album are full of charm, and indicative of the sense of friendship and mutual respect that characterises the whole band. Everybody’s looking out for the leader, which need not imply a reining in of energies. Listen to the roaring of the ensemble on the strangely-titled “1076”, for instance, and the way in which Kenny solos above the groundswell of drums and the thick swaths of electric guitar texture. This doesn’t fit conventional notions of “late music”.
The jaunty “Old Time”, whose bluesy impetus feels midway between Mingus and Adderley, may sound familiar to long-time ECM listeners. There is an earlier version entitled “How It Was Then”, with lyrics by Norma Winstone, which appeared on an Azimuth recording in 1994.
Waltzes were amongst Kenny’s favourite forms, and there are many in his discography. “A Pretty Liddle Waltz” is more than the characteristically self-effacing title suggests, its open spaces allowing Stan Sulzmann, Kenny and guitarist John Parricelli to stretch out. The tango “Sly Eyes” addresses more dramatic passions over its quasi-military beat. “Jigsaw” embodies a quality common to some of the loveliest of Kenny’s pieces. Built upon asymmetrical phrases that fit together according to their own logic, it flows in a manner entirely natural, eased along by Martin France’s drums, and with an elegant bass solo from Chris Laurence near the conclusion. Another bass feature, at the start of “Canter No. 1”, sets up the tune for its initial cantering, due to evolve, behind Sulzmann’s powerful solo, into full-fledged gallop. 
“The Long Waiting”, which Kenny previously recorded in a big band version, seems ideally suited to the quintet. This version conveys the atmosphere of austerity and openness that Wheeler liked so much, a beautiful melancholy expressed so very well in the solos of Parricelli and Sulzmann and in Kenny’s own vulnerable solo.

Track Listing:

1. Seventy-Six (Kenny Wheeler) 04:58

2. Jigsaw (Kenny Wheeler) 08:43

3. The Long Waiting (Kenny Wheeler) 05:09

4. Canter No. 1 (Kenny Wheeler) 06:40

5. Sly Eyes (Kenny Wheeler) 06:07

6. 1076 (Kenny Wheeler) 02:39

7. Old Time (Kenny Wheeler) 06:11

8. Pretty Liddle Waltz (Kenny Wheeler) 06:49

9. Nonetheless (Kenny Wheeler) 04:54


Kenny Wheeler: flugelhorn

Stan Sulzmann: tenor saxophone

John Parricelli: guitar

Chris Laurence: bass

Martin France: drums

Recorded December 2013, at Abbey Road Studios

Produced by Manfred Eicher and Steve Lake


Issued one month after what would’ve been his 85th birthday, Songs For Quintet is the late Kenny Wheeler’s tender swan song in a long and distinguished career that included a slew of recordings on ECM going back to his 1975 landmark, Gnu High. While his chops may be diminished here (he plays exclusively flugelhorn), Wheeler’s melodic imagination is fully intact in this emotive outing with tenor saxophonist Stan Sulzmann, guitarist John Parricelli, bassist Chris Laurence and drummer Martin France. Together they navigate the sly twists and turns of Wheeler’s unconventional harmonies with rare interactive aplomb. Sulzmann is an invaluable partner on the frontline and a potent soloist throughout Songs For Quintet, as he demonstrates in his contrapuntal playing on the opening “Seventy-Six” and “Jigsaw” and his daring improvisations on “Canter No. 1” and the tango-flavored “Sly Eyes.” Wheeler’s fragile showcase on his melancholy “The Long Waiting” and his solo on the darkly hued “Pretty Liddle Waltz” are as achingly beautiful as latter-day Billie Holiday. His playing above the fray on the edgy rubato interlude “1076,” which has France creating a turbulent free-jazz undercurrent on the kit, stands as a clarion call. And though hampered by illness during this session, Wheeler holds nothing back on remakes of his bluesy “Old Time” and his intervallically challenging “Nonetheless” (from 1997’s Angel Song ). Guitarist Parricelli, who follows in the tradition of uncommonly expressive and adventurous six-stringers like John Abercrombie and Bill Frisell, provides tasteful accompaniment throughout and also shows artful restraint in his solos on “Jigsaw,” “Pretty Liddle Waltz,” “Nonetheless” and “The Long Waiting.” Bassist Laurence, prominently featured on the swinging, time-shifting “Canter No. 1,” also solos brilliantly on “Sly Eyes,” creating a flexible rhythm tandem with France that allows this exceptional music to breathe. A poignant ending to a magnificent career.

Bill Milkowski (DownBeat)