Label: ECM Records – ECM 1069
Format: Vinyl, LP, Album; Country: W. Germany - Released: 1976
Style: Post-Bop, Contemporary Jazz
Recorded June 1975, Generation Sound Studios, New York City.
Composed By – Kenny Wheeler
Engineer – Tony May
Mixed By – Martin Wieland
Photography By [Cover] – Tadayuki Naito
Producer – Manfred Eicher
A - Heyoke . . . 21:47
B1 - 'Smatter . . . 5:56
B2 - Gnu Suite . . . 12:47
Kenny Wheeler – fluegelhorn
Keith Jarrett – piano
Dave Holland – bass
Jack DeJohnette – drums
Pure Lyricism from the Trumpet
From Louis Armstrong through Dizzy Gillespie and the hard bop master Woody Shaw, the trumpet has usually attracted extroverts and dazzlers. Kenny Wheeler, the enormously talented trumpeter and composer, began to change that in the 1970s—his playing emphasizes softer textures and less grandstanding approaches. On the astounding Gnu High, he plays the flügelhorn, a close relative of the trumpet that has a slightly more rounded tone, and favors scampering, musing phrases over reveille bursts that scream, "Look at me!" With this record and several that follow it, Wheeler suggests that brass can sing, and sing sweetly.
Few jazz musicians treat it that way. And even fewer write tunes that demand such tonal nuance. Wheeler specializes in languid, questioning themes that practically force him to think in expansive terms when soloing. The title suite, which lasts nearly thirteen minutes, moves through long rubato passages into broken samba-like grooves and, eventually, a more assertive choppy swing. When Wheeler makes his entrance, he doesn't barge in; rather, he glides, taking care not to step too heavily on any one beat. Follow closely as he develops his solos, however: Wheeler frequently ventures into the trumpet's extreme upper register, where brute force is often needed, and somehow hangs onto his innate sense of lyricism. Believe the title: His high notes are a new kind of high.
Gnu High is also notable as the rare date from this period where Keith Jarrett appears in a supporting role. The pianist totally "gets" Wheeler's tunes—at times on "Smatter," which features a solo-piano interlude, Jarrett generates flowing melodies with such facility, you might think he wrote the tune. That's also a function of tone: Because Wheeler's sound is so warm and inviting, everyone around him plays that way too.
When Kenny Wheeler expatriated from his native Canada to England, it was not headline news. But upon the release of Gnu High, he became a contemporary jazz figure to be recognized, revered and admired. Playing the flugelhorn exclusively for this, his ECM label debut, Wheeler's mellifluous tones and wealth of ideas came to full fruition. Whether chosen in collaboration with label boss Manfred Eicher or by Wheeler alone, picking pianist Keith Jarrett, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette was a stroke of genius. They support the elongated and extended notions of Wheeler's in many real and important ways. What is also extant is a sense of self-indulgence, real for listeners with short attention spans. "Heyoke" is such a piece rife for this discussion at nearly 22 minutes. This lilting waltz is at once atmospheric and soulful, a fairly fresh and inventive style turned more dramatic near the finish of this magnum opus. It's all fueled by the reinvented swing of DeJohnette. Jarrett's vocal whining is kept in check, as his pretty pianistics buoy Wheeler's notions in Zen inspired time and eventually no time improvisations. "Gnu Suite" is similarly rendered in an unforced 4/4 rhythm, but Wheeler is more animated. There's a plus-plus solo from Holland before the group merges into a floating and flowing discourse again in free time. The special track is "Smatter" and at just under six minutes works better, not only for radio airplay, but also in its concise melodic construct by means of the regal and happy persona Wheeler portrays. Pure melody and a repeated anchoring seven-note phrase insert sets this tune apart from the rest. It also clearly identifies the warm and cool stance only Wheeler wields, making seemingly simple music deep and profound. Certainly this was an auspicious starting point, albeit long winded, for a magical performer whose sound and smarts captured the imagination of so many fellow musicians and listeners from this point onward.
Review by Michael G. Nastos
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