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Kenny Wheeler 1930–2014

Jazz trumpeter, flugelhorn player and composer Kenny Wheeler died on 18 September aged 84. This quiet, supremely modest Canadian came to play a pervasive role in UK and European jazz, moving seamlessly and without partisanship between the realms of modern bebop, free improv large ensembles and jazz composition.

Born in Toronto, he moved to London in 1952, aged 22, and persistently worked his way inside London’s jazz scene. By 1963 he was a regular trumpeter with John Dankworth’s groups and appeared on the 1963 LP What The Dickens!. In parallel with membership of Tubby Hayes’s Big Band during the mid-60s, he appeared on the landmark Indo-Jazz Fusions LP by the Joe Harriott & John Mayer Double Quintet, and partnered John Stevens in the earliest incarnations of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, remaining in the group between 1966–71 and appearing on touchstone improv LPs such as Karyobin. In 1968 he recorded Windmill Tilter, his debut as leader, along with the John Dankworth Band: an orchestral jazz suite based on the exploits of Don Quixote.

The ensuing years saw Wheeler extending himself into a dazzling variety of work: from the open form Globe Unity Orchestra and CCS (an Alexis Korner blues rock project) to more conventional free bop with Philly Joe Jones, Paul Gonsalves and Maynard Ferguson. He held his own with some of jazz’s most challenging stylists such as Anthony Braxton, Mike Osborne and Evan Parker, but his own solo work for ECM, beginning with Gnu High (1975), and others, was largely marked by its wide spatiality, classicaly poised flow and nuanced tonality. His trumpet and flugelhorn were most distinctive in an introverted, melancholy mode, though he was equally capable of gliding to exhilarating altitudes.

He released seven solo albums on ECM, as well as guesting on numerous others and those by his chamber jazz vocal trio Azimuth, with longtime collaborators Norma Winstone and John Taylor. He was a regular member of Dave Holland’s 1980s quintet and, increasingly during the 90s and past decade, worked as a composer and bandleader, nurturing younger talents as well as consolidating longstanding relationships. Apart from the acclaimed Music For Large And Small Ensembles (1990) and Angel Song (1997), some of his finest performances are tucked away on recordings by others: Wadada Leo Smith’s Divine Love (1977), Rainer Brüninghaus’s Freigeweht (1980), David Sylvian’s Brilliant Trees (1984) and Gone To Earth (1986), and Joni Mitchell’s Travelogue (2002). At the time of his death – at a London nursing home after a short period of ill health – he was preparing the release of a quintet album for ECM featuring Stan Sulzmann, John Parricelli, Chris Laurence and Martin France. With his eloquent, matchless instrumental voice and effortless mobility between styles and idioms, Kenny Wheeler’s influential presence will be greatly missed.

Kenny Wheeler, jazz trumpeter, flugelhorn player, composer, 14 January 1930–18 September 2014.

Rob Young