Kenny Wheeler. October 2009.

I went to see Kenny Wheeler at the Vortex last week. His flugelhorn playing led a piano-less quintet with Stan Sulzmann on tenor, John Piccarelli on guitar, Chris Lawrence on bass and Martin France on drums.

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I enjoyed the gig a lot, but I also felt rather ambivalent about it, too. Some of the playing was excellent – I particularly liked Sulzmann’s clear, muscular sax and Piccarelli’s inventive, somewhat abstract guitar (I always assume that electric guitarists achieve these effects through pedals – it certainly adds a lot of colour and tone to music).

I was less certain about France’s drums – he seemed to have a harder sound than the music called for – and Wheeler’s playing seemed somewhat variable: at times he played with beautiful clarity and warmth, with lovely, inventive solos; but at others he seemed to play flat notes, and that jarred somewhat.

They played a mixture of free-ish tunes and more regular tunes, and I thought they were best when at their most abstract: there was a wonderful free number in the second set where the flugel, sax and guitar were allowed to fly by the underpinning of some amazing bowed bass and brilliant free drumming.

It was a mixed night, then: some enjoyable numbers weighing down a couple of superlative pieces, the latter making me wish it had all been like that.

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