Pure Lyricism from the Trumpet
From Louis Armstrong through Dizzy Gillespie and the hard bop master Woody Shaw, the trumpet has usually attracted extroverts and dazzlers. Kenny Wheeler, the enormously talented trumpeter and composer, began to change that in the 1970s—his playing emphasizes softer textures and less grandstanding approaches. On the astounding Gnu High, he plays the flügelhorn, a close relative of the trumpet that has a slightly more rounded tone, and favors scampering, musing phrases over reveille bursts that scream, "Look at me!" With this record and several that follow it, Wheeler suggests that brass can sing, and sing sweetly.
Few jazz musicians treat it that way. And even fewer write tunes that demand such tonal nuance. Wheeler specializes in languid, questioning themes that practically force him to think in expansive terms when soloing. The title suite, which lasts nearly thirteen minutes, moves through long rubato passages into broken samba-like grooves and, eventually, a more assertive choppy swing. When Wheeler makes his entrance, he doesn't barge in; rather, he glides, taking care not to step too heavily on any one beat. Follow closely as he develops his solos, however: Wheeler frequently ventures into the trumpet's extreme upper register, where brute force is often needed, and somehow hangs onto his innate sense of lyricism. Believe the title: His high notes are a new kind of high.
Gnu High is also notable as the rare date from this period where Keith Jarrett appears in a supporting role. The pianist totally "gets" Wheeler's tunes—at times on "Smatter," which features a solo-piano interlude, Jarrett generates flowing melodies with such facility, you might think he wrote the tune. That's also a function of tone: Because Wheeler's sound is so warm and inviting, everyone around him plays that way too.
Released: 1975, ECM
Key Tracks: "Smatter," "Gnu Suite."
Catalog Choice: Double, Double You.
Next Stop: Keith Jarrett: My Song
After That: Woody Shaw: Rosewood
Book Pages: 855–856