Kenny Wheeler, Influential Sound in Jazz, Dies at 84
Kenny Wheeler, a jazz trumpeter, flugelhornist and composer who was as comfortable improvising with uncompromising avant-gardists like the saxophonist Anthony Braxton as he was writing challenging arrangements for a big band, died on Thursday in London. He was 84.
Mr. Wheeler was, Nate Chinen noted in a 2011 concert review in The New York Times, a “quietly influential” artist whose music “doesn’t really clamor for attention.” He himself did not do much clamoring: Famously self-effacing — he once referred to his compositions as “soppy romantic melodies with a bit of chaos” — he spent much of the early part of his career as an anonymous session player in the recording studios of London and did not reach a wide international audience until he was in his mid-40s.
The album that belatedly thrust him into the spotlight was “Gnu High,”recorded in 1975 for the ECM label with an all-star supporting cast of Keith Jarrett on piano, Dave Holland on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums.
By the time he recorded “Gnu High,” Mr. Wheeler had been working for several years with Mr. Braxton and was best known in jazz circles as an exponent of free improvisation. “Gnu High” was the first showcase for his work as a composer since 1968, when the John Dankworth big band recorded his “Windmill Tiller,” a collection of pieces inspired by “Don Quixote.” (The character of Don Quixote appealed to him, Mr. Wheeler said, because “he seemed to be one of the great losers to me.”)
Critics hailed the ingenuity of Mr. Wheeler’s compositions, which were unfailingly melodic but often veered in unexpected directions, and the understated grace of his playing, which was characterized by the jazz scholar Barry Kernfeld as “clear, relaxed and lyrical, and marked by a wide-ranging harmonic and rhythmic imagination.” He recorded prolifically for ECM, both as a leader and as a member of the collective trioAzimuth with the pianist John Taylor and the vocalist Norma Winstone.
Most of his records featured small groups, but he also had the occasional opportunity to write for a broader instrumental palette on albums like “Music for Large and Small Ensembles” (1990), displaying as much of a debt to composers like Paul Hindemith as to the conventions of big-band jazz.
Mr. Wheeler was a member of Mr. Holland’s quintet from 1982 to 1987 and also performed or recorded with the Globe Unity Orchestra, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and other groups. Among his most acclaimed albums was “Angel Song” (1996), recorded with the saxophonist Lee Konitz, the guitarist Bill Frisell and Mr. Holland. His most recent album, “Six for Six,” was released in 2013.
Kenneth Vincent John Wheeler was born in Toronto on Jan. 14, 1930. His father, who played trombone in local bands, encouraged his interest in music, and he began playing trumpet at age 12. He studied at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto and, in the early 1950s, moved to London, where lived for the rest of his life.
He joined the John Dankworth orchestra in 1959 and performed with the ensemble at that year’s Newport Jazz Festival. He was a mainstay of the British jazz scene as a sideman throughout the 1960s, but was relatively unknown beyond England and depended on studio work for a steady income until the 1970s.
Mr. Wheeler’s survivors include his wife, Doreen, and a son, Mark.
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