It’s never a happy time when a maestro takes his final bow. The remembered pleasures of performances that brightened much darkness that life takes us through colors the way devoted listeners then approach his music. This is never truer than in the case of Canada-born trumpeter and flugelhornist Kenney Wheeler, who made England his home since the 1950s at a time many jazz artists were gravitating towards New York.

The final studio album of Wheeler, recorded some nine months before he died in September last year, carries with it a mild undertone of melancholy that so became the modest master who continued to sparkle till his last hurrah. Released in January on what would have been his 85th birthday, Songs for Quintet (2015) consists entirely of original numbers from Wheeler’s considerable repertoire in a balladic vein that shows age holds no sway over excellence honed over the years.

Though Songs for Quintet is a good lead-in for the uninitiated, Wheeler’s superb craft of composing is best experienced in big bands. And there’s none better than Windmill Tilter: The Story of Don Quixote (1969), his spectacular debut as leader along with the John Dankworth Orchestra. In retrospect, it’s baffling that the album did not get much traction and wasn’t re-issued for many years as the master tapes were supposedly lost. But the rich orchestration of Windmill Tilter interspersed with fiery free improvisation established Wheeler as an important writer and horn player.

In what was impressively innovative at the time, Windmill Tilter was a daring musical narrative of the timeless story of the dolorous knight of la Mancha that remained a collector’s item till it was released again in 2010, much to the joy of aficionados. Although much has happened in the big band space since then, including a revival in the 1990s, Windmill Tilter remains a classic of orchestral jazz.

To top a compositional suite like that takes some doing but Wheeler consistently rose above himself in his later music-making for large groups, and the finest example of it was seen some 20 years later in Music for Large and Small Ensembles (1990), considered by many as his masterpiece. Wheeler’s skill and breadth as a composer was dazzling in the double album, the first disk of which featured the brilliant Sweet Time Suite in eight parts. Acknowledged as a musician’s musician by that time, Wheeler was able to assemble a lineup of A-listers led by his playing and the mostly wordless singing of Norma Winstone.

Winstone has been a long time collaborator of Wheeler with her husband John Taylor, a wonderful but underrated pianist. The trio formed a group called Azimuth that performed and published a few albums that showed Wheeler was as good in small settings as he was leading large orchestras. In fact, a few of his albums with Taylor, particularly Where Do We Go From Here (2005), shows how the remarkable understanding between them makes for sophisticated yet lyrical listening.

But Wheeler wasn’t done with composing for big bands. The Long Waiting (2012), released when he was over 70 years old, featured brand new compositions for a 17-piece orchestra that stunned delighted fans, once again surprising with its amazing breath, from an upbeat Four, Five, Six to the moody Upwards and the Latin-tinged Enowena. Jazz will never lose its cutting edge as long as there’s music such as this.

Many jazz composers begin in a blaze of glory but later sink to a trough, something that can never be said about Wheeler, who in his long career drew favorable comparisons with Duke Ellington and Bob Brookmeyer for the mighty musical pen he wielded. Always modest about his achievements, Wheeler didn’t even call himself a composer but merely someone who “takes pretty songs and joins them up." If that is how the wind blew, should we not celebrate?

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Jazzmatazz is a fortnightly column on stories from the world of jazz. For the music that it features, visithere.

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