Kenny Wheeler & the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble
Three things about this are rare: Wheeler, a Canadian and longtime UK resident, almost never plays in the States; his big-band music is almost never played, period (and was recorded all too infrequently); and Hollenbeck's 18-piece Large Ensemble, remarkably inventive and often wittily dissonant, almost never plays other people's music, least of all lush, cushion-of-air arrangements like Wheeler's (though, it should be added, Wheeler's melodies ripple with elusive romance and mystery).
Friday night's 9pm set, though, was wonderful. The ensemble, tight as ever, took to that creamy, wall-to-wall big-band sound as if they'd been covering Basie standards for years, without giving up any of its sharp-edged verve. Wheeler, now 80, was a bit short on breath, but his sinuous lines and those high-note grasps were as captivating as ever.
The combo was part of the annual Festival of New Trumpet Music, curated by Dave Douglas, this year devoted to Wheeler, who plays two sets tonight with a quintet that includes his old collaborator, bassist Dave Holland.
For those who didn't make Friday or Saturday's big-band sets, I highly recommend Hollenbeck's Eternal Interlude (Sunnyside, 2009) and Shut Up and Dance (Bee Jazz, 2011), the latter played with the Orchestre National de Jazz. Wheeler's best include Music for Large & Small Ensembles (ECM, 1990) and, on a smaller scale, Angel Song (ECM, 1999) and What Now? (CamJazz, 2005). The Hollenbecks all sound very good; the first Wheeler is sonically a bit thin, the second good, and the third (recorded at Sear Sound) superb.