Saturday, October 23, 2010

Jazz of La Mancha: Kenny Wheeler's Windmill Tilter: The Story of Don Quixote

Windmill Tilter: The Story of Don Quixote (BGO Records), originally released in 1969, is a welcome re-issue. It was the first record by Canadian composer and jazz musician, Kenny Wheeler, who was born in Toronto in 1930. Wheeler was raised however in St. Catherines, Ontario, a small city in the Niagara Region of the province. His father Wilf, played trombone in dance bands that traveled around the country, but he eventually settled in Montreal. Due to his father’s nomadic occupation, Kenny studied music and learned to play trumpet at an early age, but his most significant influences were composers, John Weinzweig and Richard Rodney Bennett.

Wheeler actually moved to London, England in 1952 to study with Bennett. Working in England, proved beneficial to his career, which was significant because most jazz musicians went to New York to play be-bop. Wheeler continued to play in British dance bands earning him a chair in the trumpet section of the John Dankworth Orchestra. Dankworth, who later became the leader in mainstream jazz out of England, inspired Wheeler to compose for his orchestra. The result was Windmill Tilter: The Story of Don Quixote, a suite written for large orchestra and small group. After its first release on the Fontana label, it was forgotten for many years, until now.

Windmill Tilter is essentially a suite for jazz orchestra based on the story by Cervantes. But rather than bring a literal interpretation of the characters in the novel, we get nuggets of characters in the music with a strong emphasis on improvisation from a variety of soloists in the band. On “Don the Dreamer,” the band introduces a simple theme, until it's augmented by Chris Pyne on trombone followed by a solid tenor saxophone solo from Tony Roberts. Finally the flugelhorn of Kenny Wheeler makes the point that Don is an idealist set on his journey with full optimism. This composition is followed by the sublime sounds of the quintet on "Sweet Dulcinea Blue," a character tribute to the sweet heroine of the story. "Sancho," a bright, fully orchestrated profile of Don’s loyal companion features a lyrical solo by John Dankworth on alto sax. Here the orchestration is quite sophisticated considering the nature of the character, but perhaps I’m being too literal. Jazz arranging is very much an impressionistic form of composition and that’s what I’m accustomed to hearing, be it from the pen of Duke Ellington (Far East Suite) or Bill Holman (Stan Kenton Orchestra) or Gil Evans/Miles Davis (Sketches of Spain). Nevertheless, Wheeler has created a conceptual shape to jazz music that was rarely given a voice in 1968. Fortunately, John Dankworth recognized Wheeler’s talent and gave him a chance. The result is one fine recording: music that swings and tells a story.

Kenny Wheeler turned 80 years-of-age in January, and Windmill Titler: The Story of Don Quixote launched a fine career in music and some of the most beautifully arranged compositions in contemporary jazz.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director.

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