February 21, 2011 6:28 pm

Kenny Wheeler Quintet, Pizza Express Jazz Club, London

The sheer quality of the band’s performance made the gig engrossing

Kenny Wheeler’s 80th birthday celebrations last year included a short tour fronting a bespoke big band with an all-original repertoire. This gig put the trumpeter under an equally harsh spotlight. Wheeler’s style is demanding in itself – rarely resolving melodies, high interval leaps and oblique, long-sustained notes – but this freshly convened quintet had the extra bite of young American tenor sax tyro Jon Iragabon, whose last album was 90 minutes of continuous improvisation with bass and drums.

Wheeler, playing flugelhorn throughout, delivered his trademark leaps, tone intact, and spun his long, oddly shaped lines with an unerring logic. But what made this gig so engrossing was the sheer quality of the band’s performance. The three lead voices were strong, technically assured thematic improvisers, and Michael Janisch on bass and Andrew Bain on drums sailed through the most challenging changes in tempo and mood. And pianist John Taylor was in magnificent, upbeat form, full of urgency and nuance.

Wheeler’s compositional palette is made up of complex harmonies and awkward movements. But there is room to investigate the deeper recesses of each structure and discover interesting pathways. Two numbers in, and Taylor was giving each measure a different shade, probing at the pulse and draping riffs with casual precision. And, like Wheeler, he expanded his simple motifs into open-spaced epics, transforming their impact by dropping a note or suspending a chord.

Iragabon was equally assured. He has a rooted, muscular tenor sax sound, ultra-precise articulation and is comfortable in all registers. His first set ballad was an exquisite wrap, his duets with Wheeler sensuously voiced and his free-jazz fire undimmed.

The session-precise first set ended with the dramatic tempo changes of “Canto No. 1”. The looser, always engaging second set conjoined brittle tango with a blues waltz, featured Wheeler’s “Everybody’s Song But My Own” and ended with an upward-sweeping, tempo-shifting swinger. Long improvisations were balanced by ad-libbed duets and a cappella showcases and rhythms tensed and changed shape. It was a terrific gig, with the veteran on his mettle and the band confidently freewheeling through Wheeler’s tricky originals.

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