Kenny Wheeler/Lee Konitz/Bill Frisell/Dave HollandAngel Song
Angel Song represents the coming together of four exceptional improvisors in a programme of music written by Kenny Wheeler. If the project's four protagonists have attributes in common, these have to do with artistic independence, measured not only in terms of the instrumental idiosyncrasies that define a style but also in a distance from whatever has been deemed the focal point of modern jazz at any given time. These four outsiders - Wheeler, Konitz, Frisell, Holland - united for the very first time as a quartet here, have almost always taken the road less travelled. The musical success of Angel Song has persuaded them to travel it together for a while; concert tours will be forthcoming.
Lee Konitz's apprenticeship in the Lennie Tristano "school" - whose output was not so much "cool" as astringent, a different kind of bracing from the tumultuousness of bebop - ensured that the saxophonist was amongst the very few alto players of his generation who did not sound like an echo of Charlie Parker. With Tristano in 1949 he took part in experiments which mark, at least on records (e.g. Crosscurrents), the first tentative steps towards a "free" jazz. Though perhaps better known for other "historical" statements - the Miles Davis Nonet, Gil Evans, his brief tenure with the Mingus Band - as well as the many albums under his own name, Konitz has never shied away from experimentalism. He played, for instance, with the group that became Circle in the early 1970s (after its dissolution, Dave Holland joined the Konitz Quartet briefly, and appeared on Lee's Satori album). In the 80s, Derek Bailey's Company was one of the more unorthodox settings for the saxophonist's long lines. As with each of his confrères on Angel Song, however, the improvisational impulse has always been balanced by a deeply-felt melodic sense. The present recording marks Konitz's first "full-length" appearance on ECM although, in 1995, he guested on the Atmospheric Conditions Permitting anthology (ECM 1549/50), which received the Deutsche Schallplattenpreis as jazz album of the year 1996.
Kenny Wheeler and Dave Holland have been in and out of each other's bands since the late 1960s after first playing together as members of the late John Stevens's Spontaneous Music Ensemble. They worked together as half of what was, arguably, Anthony Braxton's best quartet between 1973 and 1976. Holland appeared (alongside Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette) on Wheeler's acclaimed ECM debut Gnu High in 1975 and has appeared on the majority of the trumpeter's leader dates since then, including Deer Wan, Double Double You, Music For Large and Small Ensembles and The Widow In The Window. Furthermore, from 1983-87 Wheeler was a member of Holland's band and can be heard with the bassist on Jumpin In, Seeds of Time and The Razor's Edgea. Other shared ECM credits include George Adams's (recently-reissued) Sound Suggestions which features both bassist and trumpeter.
Wheeler, by his own account, is stylistically a "schizophrenic" musician: at least two players seem always to be competing for the upper hand in his solos. There is the melancholy romantic, influenced by Art Farmer and Kind Of Blue Miles and a much freer trumpeter, as expressive as Don Cherry or Tomasz Stanko. It would be difficult to say which of these Wheelers has been more inspirational to a generation of younger hornmen. As a writer, moreover, Wheeler has few equals in modern jazz - the buoyancy of his tunes and his taste for unusual harmonies has been much appreciated by his peers, and Dave Holland has acknowledged Wheeler's influence on his own composing.
The curve of Holland's own career has often been sketched by jazz journalists; it has become the stuff of near-legend. "Discovered" by Miles Davis at Ronnie Scott's Club and brought across the Atlantic to participate in the movement Miles led toward an electric/eclectic jazz, Holland abandoned ostinato based jazz rock as its popularity soared. He returned to free improvising and experimental jazz and gradually expanded his palette to deal with virtually all aspects of modern improvising, with ECM documenting his moves from 1971 onwards. His many ECM recordings include duo albums with Barre Phillips and Derek Bailey, Circle's Paris Concert, Contrasts with the Sam Rivers Quartet as well as seven albums as a bandleader, two solo recordings - Emerald Tears and Life Cycle - and four albums with the Gateway trio with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. Amongst his many virtues as a player is his perfect time, and his rhythmic assurance is such that the absence of a drummer on Angel Song, while noted, prompts no cause for alarm.
Bill Frisell was an all but unknown guitarist when ECM first showcased his abilities on Eberhard Weber's Fluid Rustle in 1979. Subsequent releases, including leader dates such as Rambler (with Kenny Wheeler) and group projects including Bass Desires, the Garbarek Group (circa Paths, Prints), the Paul Motian Trio, and the 1986/87 edition of the Paul Bley Quartet helped establish his guitar-sound as one of the most unique in the music. As journalist Kenny Mathieson has observed "his spidery, fine-spun filigree of delicate electric guitar lines is instantly recognisable in any of the widely varying contexts in which he plays." Although Frisell hasn't recorded as a leader or co-leader for ECM since Lookout For Hope in the late 80s, he has continued to make guest appearances on selected projects, including a particularly impassioned performance on Gavin Bryars's New Series album After The Requiem. His playing on Angel Song may be characterized as some of his most untypical work. The sustain and delay effects that he generally favours are supplanted by a "semi-acoustic" jazz guitar sound that makes roots in Wes Montgomery and, particularly, Jim Hall very evident.
Though it is difficult to pinpoint an album in jazz history that it resembles in any significant manner, Angel Song has the indefinable hallmarks of a classic of the genre. The level of musical interplay, throughout, is of the very highest order.