As we approach the new year, lists of the best music of the decade are spilling out from all angles. Many of these lists attempt to include albums that aren’t just ‘good’, but that are ‘significant’ and ‘important‘. But ‘significant’ and ‘important‘ to what exactly? As NPR explains:
These are the game-changers: records that
signaled some sort of shift in the way music
is made or sounds, or ones that were especially
influential or historically significant.
This is an arbitrary qualifier, because how can we really know if a record created a change or shift in music without placing it among the music around it? This got me thinking: Is it necessary to contextualize music? Surely, how music develops is important, but when the average listener sits down, aren’t they just looking to hear something pleasing to the ear? Thus, when a song or album is contextualized, it becomes less about the music itself.
Many comments I recently viewed in the discussion section of NPR’s “The Decade in Music: ’00’s” revolved around why Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising (2002) wasn’t included. This, however, has more to do with why an album that focused on 9/11 wasn’t included because surely 9/11 was the most or one of the most important events of the decade. But music with lyrics have the advantage of conveying a period of time or event with much greater ease than instrumental music does. So why should The Rising be important just because it talks about 9/11 right after 9/11 happened? If I released an album next year chronicling the Panic of 1819, I doubt it would be deemed culturally significant. And if Bruce Springsteen had released The Rising tomorrow, I am sure it would be considered less significant. So does its place in time make the music more important?
Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-95 (1992) is universally considered ‘important‘ because of the bridge it built between Ambient and Techno music, but today it sounds rather timid. So is it still worth listening to? Perhaps only if we consider its place in musical history. Ambient isn’t exactly supposed to be ‘exciting’ music, but I find much of Brian Eno’s work to be equally significant and to have aged and weathered much better than Aphex Twin’s work.
Someone attempting to check out Billie Holiday for the first time might unknowingly pick up Lady In Satin (1958), which features the singer a year before her death when her voice was significantly withered and she had lost much of her pitch. This album is almost guaranteed to disappoint someone who is not aware Holiday’s physical state at the time of recording, or of her attempt to reminisce about and communicate her extremely troubled past more through emotion than pitch. Only after the story behind this recording is understood does the its beauty emerge.
So considering all this, is it necessary to contextualize music? I’m still not quite sure. I certainly think Lady In Satin is a good album, and at the same time I am kind of frustrated that people think The Rising should be considered musically important just because of the issues it covers. And how about this for contextualization: The Rising ended an almost two-decade long dry spell for Springsteen and led to him becoming one of the most commercially successful artists of the 2000’s, which essentially means he profited from 9/11. And Selected Ambient Works 85-95 is actually technically a compilation of songs, and as soon as it brought Aphex Twin into the spotlight he completely changed the type of music he made (“Flim” is not ambient).
But maybe I am just biased.
Some of the albums that were commonly mentioned on “Best of the 2000’s” lists weren’t necessarily important so much as they were just good, somewhat different, and executed with serious, artistic intentions. In reality, none of us can know how important many of these albums really are because they haven’t had enough time to significantly effect the development of music. Yet we try to form these lists with this disclaimer anyhow, so maybe ‘important‘ music isn’t ‘important‘ anyway…
Kenny Wheeler is one of the most underrated jazz musicians of the last 50 years. The Canadian-born trumpeter’s decision to move to and remain in Britain for the majority of his life may have something to do with his lack of recognition, but when looking at his contributions to music it is hard to understand why he isn’t more well respected. Consider some of these quick facts:
Despite being mainly associated with post 1970‘s jazz, Kenny Wheeler is about a year younger than Horace Silver. That means he is older than Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, and many other current ‘jazz elders’.
Dave Holland’s first recording is on a Kenny Wheeler album. (This recording also features a young John McLaughlin).
One of Keith Jarrett’s last dates as a sideman was on a Kenny Wheeler recording (over 30 years ago).
Despite only making his recording debut at the age of 38, he has since appeared on almost 300 albums, ranging from the original soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar to albums by Philly Joe Jones, Joni Mitchell and Anthony Braxton.
His 1976 album Gnu High is one of the most popular jazz recordings of the 70’s. As Ethan Iverson pointed out in his list of the most important albums between 1973 and 2006, “This is one of those albums that everybody has.”
These notes seem to describe an extremely well-renowned musician, but unfortunately that is not a label we can apply to Kenny Wheeler. Many young musicians in America are unaware of his playing or his contributions to this music. There even remains a significant chunk of established jazz musicians who know little more than his name. My former teacher, the legendary Detroit trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, is among these musicians. But in addition to these quick facts, I can think of four major reasons why people should feel more inclined to check out this legendary trumpeter/composer.
1 ~~ His trumpet playing
Most people who consider themselves Kenny Wheeler fans will most likely admit they are more a fan of his composing and arranging than his trumpet playing. Among them would be Wheeler himself. Asked to comment about his own playing, Wheeler had an unusual response:
I’m not really crazy about my solos. Your solo is definitely down to you, and you only have a split second to decide what the next note is going to be. When you write a composition, a tune – whatever you like to call it – you can labour over it, change things, rub things out, until you like it. I do like a lot of my compositions, but in the end I don’t feel like I really own them. If you like, I have been lucky to tap into some source and picked them up, and I got them before anyone else did. I think Hoagy Carmichael said that about “Stardust”, he got it before anyone else got it. I have the same feeling about the tunes I write. I quite like them because I don’t feel responsible. But the solo, nobody is to blame but yourself.
But Wheeler is being modest. Other than Don Cherry, Kenny Wheeler may be the only trumpet player after 1950 to have no discernible influences; his style is truly original. Unlike Cherry, whose style was characterized by his lack of technique, Wheeler is an incredible technician. His style is often characterized by the lack of a clear bebop vocabulary and a penchant for placing large intervalic leaps within lines. Wheeler is one of those rare trumpet players who is as comfortable in the lead chair of his section as he is in the solo chair. Special recognition should go to him for maintaining his original style despite the influences around him. Even when playing standards on a Philly Joe Jones record in 1968 his style is completely his own.
With Anthony Braxton – “Composition 23J” – The Montreux/Berlin Concerts – 1975
His initial foray into the American market was when he was picked to join Anthony Braxton’s quartet in the early 70’s. His selection to join the band, as he states himself, was due to the fact that few other trumpet players could play the incredibly demanding parts that Braxton wrote. He is especially known for his flugelhorn playing, often preferring it over the trumpet, which is quite unusual. His sideman appearances have more often than not found him playing in a free setting, but he is just as comfortable navigating extremely complex chord changes, oftentimes written by himself.
2 ~~ His compositions
Wheeler is a prolific composer. Many of his own songs rarely appear more than once in his oeuvre, and if they do they more often than not they are unrecognizable compared to their original form (compare “Heyoke” from Gnu High to its appearance on the album Siren’s Song). Wheeler loves to really get inside his own compositions, to draw them out and expand upon them endlessly. This is the mark of a true composer, one whose works are constantly growing, forever developing. He has both an incredible knack for melody as well as a truly original understanding of harmony. His compositions bridge the gap between tradition and modernity: few would deny their categorization, yet they maintain almost no traditional harmonic movements. As I like to say, his chords are often “abstractions” of one another; they make little sense in terms of traditional concepts of harmonic movement yet make absolute perfect sense to the ear. This, to me, is a clear sign of a gifted composer; someone who can pull beautiful melodies and harmonies seemingly from nowhere and have it all make sense in the end.
“Bachelor Sam” – Windmill Tilter – 1968
Wheeler has released over 20 albums that almost exclusively feature his own compositions and he has recruited a wide array of established sidemen to help interpret them. Other than his consistent collaborators Dave Holland and John Taylor, Wheeler has collaborated with saxophonists Jan Garbarek, Michael Brecker, Lee Konitz, Evan Parker and Chris Potter, guitarists John Abercrombie, John McLaughlin, Bill Frisell and Ralph Towner, pianists Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett, as well as drummers Peter Erskine, Joe LaBarbera and Jack DeJohnette to record his own music. In more recent years he has been experimenting with a chamber sound, which initially was just a standard quartet without a drummer but later has involved both string and brass chamber groups.
3 ~~ His big band arranging
Kenny Wheeler has been most critically lauded for his big band work. His debut recording, Windmill Tilter, finds Wheeler’s abilities already fully developed. The compositions and arrangements, based around the story of Don Quixote, are all Wheeler’s and the band utilized is John Dankworth’s Orchestra, of which Wheeler was a member at the time. His complex notion of harmony is beautifully transferred to the orchestra and sounds amazingly fresh and modern considering it was recorded in 1969. There is nary a bad song on the album, and it is certainly a shame that we will never hear it remastered (the master tapes have been lost or destroyed), so if you can get your hands on it, don’t hesitate!
“Sophie” – Music For Large & Small Ensembles – 1990
Wheeler’s most famous big band date is certainly the 1990 release Music For Large and Small Ensembles which features, among many others, John Abercrombie, Peter Erskine, John Taylor, Evan Parker and Dave Holland. The album is the pinnacle of Wheeler’s big band writing, complete with his trademark of using Norma Winestone’s voice as a (often lyric-less) lead instrument. The “Sweet Time Suite” is a landmark in big band writing, which opens with an absolutely breathtaking chorale. There is very little traditional big band styles in his writing, which often sounds more classical than jazz-influenced while maintaining an unmistakably modern sound. “Sophie” is a clear indication of the various styles that Wheeler masterfully transcends. It begins with two chamber-influenced chorales, one featuring the brass section and the other featuring the sax section. Wheeler rarely writes rhythmically unison lines; the sax chorale in particular is full of well-utilized counterpoint and beautiful contrary motion. They give way to an unmistakably Steve Reich-influenced piano motif and then seamlessly into a quick latin groove. While there are certainly more reference points for Wheeler’s arranging (see: Gil Evans), much like his trumpet playing he has been able to develop a truly original big band style that has not been imitated since.
4 ~~ Gnu High
If there is one thing and one thing only to appreciate Kenny Wheeler for, it is his 1976 release Gnu High. I feel somewhat bad saying this, however, because unlike many of Wheeler’s other releases, Gnu High was somewhat a product of happenstance, much of which Wheeler is not happy about to this day. For what was his debut on ECM records, Manfred Eicher gave Wheeler two options for a piano player: Keith Jarrett or Chick Corea. Wheeler chose Jarrett, most likely unaware that Jarrett was not the easiest person to work with. Upon arrival, Jarrett was given about 11 possible Wheeler originals to look over for the recording. He came back to the trumpeter with 3 and said they were the only ones he could work with. Luckily Jarrett has good taste, and these 3 Wheeler originals stand as his most lasting compositions. “Heyoke” and “Gnu Suite” are both miniature suites and combined they total over 30 minutes of music. “Heyoke” has an especially unusual form, but one perfect for Jarrett. What was most likely written to be a short solo interlude between movements turns into almost 4 minutes of solo piano, and it is great to hear Jarrett wringing out the rich Wheeler harmony. There is also a lot of room for Holland to develop his own ideas, especially in the frequent rubato sections that separate melodies.
From “Gnu Suite” – Gnu High – 1975
Often considered one of Jarrett’s greatest sideman performances, Gnu High also features one of the most riveting quartet performances of the 1970’s. Wheeler’s performance is, true-to-form, understated yet beautiful. He is apparently unhappy with his own performance on the album, clearly a nod to possibly being outshone by Jarrett. (You can hear Jarrett stepping on Wheeler’s toes at 2:42 in “Smatter”. It is clear that Jarrett thought Wheeler’s solo was over and began to play. Wheeler, understated both in his playing as well as his personality, steps back a little and is unsure as to whether or not to give way. Wheeler’s last chorus is thus an awkward back and forth between himself and the pianist, before he quietly makes his way out.)
Regardless, it cannot be denied that what is for the most part an incredible group performance is certainly a result of the band feeling inspired by the wonderfully original compositions. A clear indicator of this (and possibly my favorite moment on the album) is halfway through “Gnu Suite” when the main melody arrives. The beautiful melody is perfectly interpreted the first time around by Jarrett, and then afterwards joined by Wheeler himself. The melody, which is certainly not ideally fit for trumpet (let alone flugelhorn), is perfectly executed by Wheeler and gives way to a masterful trio performance.
Gnu High remains a landmark recording, certainly one of the best jazz records of the 70’s, and a must-have for any fan of Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, Keith Jarrett, Kenny Wheeler, or of just music in general.
Clifford Brown recorded three classic collaborations with singers in the early 50’s. Of the three (which included dates with Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington), Helen Merrill has had the least distinguished career since. I like to compare Merrill’s career to that of Nancy Wilson: both had fantastic debuts in small group settings that featured a notable soloist (in Wilson’s case it was the Cannonball Adderley Quintet), and both continued to have careers drenched in strings and superfluous arrangements, none of which matched the magic of the initial small-group settings. With arrangements courtesy of a young Quincy Jones, the nonet that appears on Helen Merrill with Clifford Brown remains one of the smallest groups that Merrill ever recorded with. This is particularly strange because Merrill’s voice works much better in a smaller context; she does not have much projection, and her soft, whisper of a voice fits perfectly among minimal support. Her style was far more effective when she was young, and unfortunately it did not develop quite as well as one would have hoped as she got older. Thus this date finds her in her prime and to this day remains her best outing.
You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To
Just as her voice is better suited for more minimal settings, it also works much better with slower number and ballads. “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” is an exception. Granted, it’s taken at a medium pace, but it is still significantly faster than most of the other tracks and works much better than her up-tempo take on “‘S Wonderful”. Lyrics like “you’d be so nice by the fire” are complemented perfectly by her warm, soft voice. The following track, “What’s New”, is given a classic arrangement by Quincy Jones, and Merrill’s voice floats beautifully atop the wandering harmonies at the beginning of the form before landing perfectly in the verse. The arrangement also best utilizes her range, and we find the closest example her ability to pull an operatic projection out from her soft pad-like voice.
But by far the best track on the record is her classic interpretation of the overlooked Mel Torme standard “Born to be Blue.” Once again, the lyrics of perpetual sadness are perfectly conveyed by the character and composition of Merrill’s voice and inflection. After a perfectly balanced solo by Clifford Brown, Merrill returns to the bridge and then the final verse, where she sings “I guess I’ve had it luckier than some folks, I’ve known the thrill of loving you,” which is so effortlessly melancholy it’s as if she is living the lyrics as she sings them. Once again, Jones’s arrangement is perfectly tasteful, especially when Merrill proclaims that her world, once bright and sunny, is now a “faded pastel,” and a deep mix of colors emerge in the horns (what a perfect description of her voice as well).
Born To Be Blue
Special regards should also go to Clifford Brown, whose performance on this record overshadows those on his collaborations with Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughn. I especially enjoy his solo on “What’s New” and his quote of “Parker’s Mood” at the beginning of his solo on “Yesterdays”.
Sure, Helen Merrill isn’t the most versatile of singers, and her voice can certainly grow tiresome, but if there was ever a perfect vehicle for her, this 1954 date was it.