'On The Way To Two' Offers A Snapshot Of A True Jazz Partnership

Nov 12, 2015
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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In September of last year, Toronto-born English trumpet player Kenny Wheeler passed away after an illness at 84. In July, his longtime pianist John Taylor died suddenly at 72. A duo record they made 10 years ago is now out for the first time. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it's a snapshot of a partnership.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "ON THE WAY TO TWO")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Kenny Wheeler on muted trumpet and John Taylor tapping on the piano strings from their newly issued 2005 session "On The Way To Two." By then, they'd been recording together 36 years. At first, it was mostly in London big bands, then they really bonded in smaller groups starting with the trio Azimuth. They made dozens of records together often under Wheeler's leadership. Steve Lacy used to talk about the importance of working partnerships in jazz. Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor are a good example.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "ON THE WAY TO TWO")

WHITEHEAD: Kenny Wheeler had a regal tone on trumpet from plummy low notes to whistling highs. He liked majestic upward leaps, weird sudden dissents and melodies that turned back on themselves. He'd dicker with a long note's pitch, bending it for a sour inflection. Wheeler and pianist John Taylor shared a subtle sense of harmony - subtle but not ambiguous. Each player heard where the other was going, and they were always in alignment. The pianist knew how to keep the trumpeter moving, when to let him stretch the time and when to pull him back.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN TAYLOR SONG, "CLOSE TO MARS")

WHITEHEAD: That's from John Taylor's tune "Close To Mars." Kenny Wheeler wrote five numbers on their duo album, and there's a Billy Strayhorn ballad. The players' mutual understanding and close listening also animate three cohesive free improvisations. There, Taylor reaches under the hood to pluck, hammer or strum the piano strings. On one of these misterioso pieces, he switches between playing on the strings and on the keys - whatever suits the moment. These musicians also know when not to play. Their silences have weight, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "ON THE WAY TO TWO")

WHITEHEAD: Here and there, the trumpeter shows what he learned from Miles Davis and the puckish Don Cherry. Even so, Kenny Wheeler was a real original, a favorite of Europe's mainstreamers and outcats alike. On this recording at age 75, he was still in good lip, overdubbing a second horn on a couple of endings to harmonize with himself. "On The Way To Two" isn't the last album he and John Taylor made together, but it's a worthy postscript to their collaboration. Great musicians' posthumous releases can be dodgy, but this one is all right.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "ON THE WAY TO TWO")

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "On The Way To Two" by the late musicians trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and pianist John Taylor. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new collection of work by longtime New Yorker writer Roger Angell. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.