Canadian/British jazz trumpeter and composer Kenneth Vincent John Wheeler [1930 – 2014] wrote one string quartet. The CD that contains it is a collection of music accompanied by a string quartet. Some of the pieces are for quartet only, others feature Wheeler on trumpet and occasionally his long-time musical partner John Taylor on piano. The whole album is filled with interesting textures by the string quartet.
Wheeler’s first and only string quartet is in one movement. A drone introduction which comes in waves is accompanied by a strong cello line. This leads to multiple voices being heard over the cello phrase. A strong chord rings out, and then a measured version is heard. The music moves in to a melancholia, slightly pensive even. A violin reaches out with long tones that progress to a more melodic phrasing – this is very expressive music which reminds me of Edmund Rubbra’s early quartets. I can hear traces of jazz harmony in the ensemble voicings but it still sounds like a string quartet. The playing is very delicate, before becoming more positive. A folk-like harmony evokes the Third Ear Band’s Air, Earth, Fire and Water, which was released in the 1960s.
A change in harmony reveals a lamenting violin and a sympathetic accompaniment. The first violin continues to lament and the two violins paint a Romantic picture. A change ensues and a tension is evident as the cello plays moody lines in support. We now have movement as the cello pulses and the violins almost march as they negotiate a slightly dissonant harmonic passage. The harmonies constantly change, but there is not a lot of dynamics to be heard. Now the tempo ceases and an arco cello expresses freely as a solo voice before blending into a new passage for the ensemble. The first violin drifts across the music which is very restrained.
There is some evidence of the 1920s and 1930s here, which I don’t often come across in Modern string quartets. A further tension arises with a flurry of slightly dissonant notes. Now the music pauses and the cello goes solo, pizzicato style until the ensemble rejoins and the jazz bass walking sound is continued. Two violins converse, which brings impetus. This doesn’t last and the music gently drifts downwards and we are left with one violin, and a wash of chordal colour.
Nearing the end, a new mood unfolds, revealing an eerie feeling, with the cello bringing forth deep, mysterious lines. The music suddenly has a spring in its step, and a sense of optimism. A repeated motif is evident and a brief flourish returns to the lamenting style which is the core of the work. Some aggressive violin bowings lead to a quiet concluding chord.
I’m also going to discuss another short piece for string quartet, Nita. There is a further feeling of melancholy here, with a hint of Impressionism. The strings are warm in a British style and a pause leads to two voices being heard before the ensemble rejoins proceedings. This is a lovely piece for string quartet, very evocative, elegiac even. The lush harmonies wander forward with a charm that again, evokes Rubbra for me.
This is a composer who knows how to write for string quartet. In fact Wheeler’s whole career has been focussed on orchestration. His sense of harmony is pure and in these two pieces, rarely jazz-like at all. In fact I would suggest that this applies to most of the writing on the album.
Of course there is some jazz to be found here, but it is gentle, and the string quartet is always evident. The jazz playing of Wheeler and Taylor is considered and tasteful. This is no big band workout.
The review CD, Other People, features the Hugo Wolf String Quartet and they do a fine job. The CD is on the CAM Jazz label and can be found on Amazon US and UK.
It is available on Spotify.
Listenability: A fine gently lyrical CD, based on an unusual concept.