"Kenny Wheeler's writing has a powerful individual atmosphere," fellow trumpeter Ian Carr has noted, "which has spawned many disciples - a kind of buoyant, romantic melancholy." Buoyancy, romanticism and melancholy are indeed evident - in roughly equal proportion - on this very attractive recording featuring the expatriate Canadian's writing for brass and soloists. The overall feel of "A Long Time Ago" is perhaps pitched midway between the widely-acclaimed "Angel Song" and the earlier "Music for Large and Small Ensembles" (it's a large ensemble recording with an intimate tone), although there is also a splendid version of "Gnu Suite", reprising and reformulating music first heard on "Gnu High", Wheeler's ECM debut (with Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette) recorded in 1975.
Simply as documentation of Kenny's writing for larger groups, "A Long Time Ago" would be valuable. Wheeler-as-improvisor in diverse idioms has been relatively well-charted on disc, but there is very little of his more stringently composed/arranged work available. The aforementioned "Large and Small Ensembles" set, half a Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra album (also on ECM), and an album on the hard-to-find ah-um label. This is, pretty much, all that remains of 40 years of Wheeler's writing for big(ger) bands. Master tapes of his early masterpieces "Windmill Tilter" and "Song For Someone" disappeared decades ago. The new recording, then, helps to fill a significant gap, and the emphasis on brass makes it a doubly-special item in the Wheeler discography. Debts to Ellington or Gil Evans or (a special favourite) the Gerry Mulligan Tentet, which might still be discernible in his compositions for jazz orchestra of more conventional instrumentation, do not apply here. The drummerless line-up achieves a floating, drifting quality - most unusual in a large group - that quite frequently brings "Angel Song" to mind. And it as well to remember that that vastly successful album also reached beyond jazz, its contrapuntalism specifically influenced by Renaissance polyphony and by the writing of William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and Gesualdo. Similarly, the piece here entitled "Going For Baroque" makes its inspirational sources playfully apparent. Wheeler, clearly, has been influenced by a wider range of sources than many of his jazz confreres. When studying with Bill Russo many years ago he paid closest scrutiny to the two- and three-part inventions of Bach, for instance. The writing of Hindemith has also been influential and has left its echo in an idiom that is now instantly recognizable as Kenny's.
If the strength and elegance of Kenny's soloing once had the effect of overshadowing his writing, there is evidence that this is changing. As Evan Parker says, "There is no question that Kenny Wheeler as composer and arranger has made a significant contribution to the art of jazz writing and that gradually more and more musicians are learning his language. Young arrangers are accused of using 'Wheelerisms' as they find their ears drawn to Kenny's way with linear development, extended harmony, counter-melody and the written jazz chorus. K.W. is clearly the founder of a school of writing and arranging as well as a unique trumpet voice."
"A Long Time Ago" is the first of Wheeler's ECM recordings to draw its personnel exclusively from the London scene that Kenny has influenced so profoundly since arriving from Toronto 47 years ago. As the (reluctant) star soloist of John Dankworth's orchestra of the late 1950s, Wheeler drew the admiration of the English jazz modernists of the day; his association with the free improvisers in the circle around John Stevens's Spontaneous Music Ensemble in the following decade, broadened his following amongst more adventurous musicians. One of those players steps forward in the role of producer on "A Long Time Ago". Evan Parker and Kenny Wheeler have been friends, allies and mutual influences for more than 30 years, the trumpeter/ flugelhornist recently telling England's The Guardian, "If I have a language of my own [as an improvisor] I probably got if off Evan Parker - not phrases, just the feeling of playing." Few critics, even, would comprehend this subtlety for, on the surface, the musical approaches of Wheeler and Parker appear so different; one needs to consider the freedom in Wheeler's lyricism, and the lyrical qualities of Parker's allegedly more abstract improvising to begin to make sense of it. Anyway, their paths have frequently overlapped - also on recordings for ECM, including Kenny's "Around Six" and "Large and Small Ensembles" and three albums with the Globe Unity Orchestra ("Improvisations", "Compositions", "Intergalactic Blow").
The impulse behind the present recording, which despite generous deployment of flugelhorn emphasizes above all Wheeler as writer/arranger, came from the brass players themselves, particularly Derek Watkins and Henry Lowther, much-respected figures in English jazz, who insisted - after a London concert - that this material be documented. Parker: "Derek Watkins's status is such that what he thinks should be done can be done." Henry Lowther agreed to work as "fixer", rounding up the players from the freelance milieu. John Taylor, a Wheeler comrade for decades (their many shared recording credits include three of Wheeler's ECM albums and five discs with the Azimuth trio) was an obvious choice as soloist. Guitar player John Parricelli has played with a wide variety of musicians from singer Judy Tzuke to Paul Motian, via Mike Gibbs and Loose Tubes and is currently associated with the groups of saxophonists Iain Ballamy and Andy Sheppard. He has said he had two ambitions when he became a musician, to play for Aretha Franklin and to play for Kenny Wheeler. With "A Long Time Ago", one of those goals is realized.
Of the brass players, Derek Watkins Henry Lowther and Ian Hamer were all heard on the "Large Ensembles" disc. Lowther, Richard Edwards and Dave Stewart were also previously members of the John Surman/John Warren Brass Project which recorded for ECM in 1992. Lowther and Wheeler (and Evan Parker) have also played together in diverse incarnations of the Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra.
Conductor for the project is a musician also highly regarded as a composer-arranger in his own right. Tony Faulkner's big band of the early 1970s included Wheeler, Lowther, and Stan Sulzmann (who assisted Parker in the production of the present recording) amongst many others. Faulkner is also a jazz scholar, has published on the music of Ellington and Thad Jones, and currently directs the UK-based Duke Ellington Repertory Orchestra. He clearly understands Wheeler's particular idiom.
Serving as "bookends" around the ensemble pieces that comprise the second half of "A Long Time Ago" are two fascinating short pieces that share the same title, "One Plus Three". Here, the Wheeler flugelhorn is alone but triple-tracked and we can see how Kenny's orchestral impulses also serve his improvising. Listening, one recalls that an early sighting of the unaccompanied Kenny Wheeler was on the piece called "Solo One" on "Around Six", the 1979 ECM album that also made use of the services of Evan Parker.