Jazz trumpeter and flügelhornist Kenny Wheeler was one of the most advanced voices on his instrument. Blessed with a full, lovely tone and an astounding range, Wheeler sounded equally at home in fiery free jazz explorations or softer, more lyrical post-bop meditations.
Wheeler was born in 1930 in Toronto, Ontario, and began playing trumpet at age 12. After studying at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory, he moved to London in 1952, where he gigged with swing and dance bands. He appeared with John Dankworth’s orchestra at the 1959 Newport Festival and remained with that group until 1965. In 1966, Wheeler discovered free jazz, and, fascinated, joined John Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemblefor the next four years. In addition, he played jazz-rock fusion with the Mike Gibbs Orchestra from 1969-1975, and joined Tony Oxley’s sextet (along with free jazz giants like Derek Bailey and Evan Parker) from 1969-1972. Through the latter, Wheeler was invited to join German pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach’s groundbreaking free jazz big band the Globe Unity Orchestra in 1970, an association Wheeler maintained for years to come.
During the first half of the ’70s, Wheeler played with Anthony Braxton, which became his primary focus. In 1975, he signed with the ECM label and recorded the well-received Gnu High, which established him as a solo artist of note.
Wheelerturned out a series of excellent ECM albums, including 1977’s Deer Wan and 1983’s Double, Double You. Several more generally fine outings followed in the ’90s, including the ECM dates Music for Large and Small Ensembles and The Widow in the Window (both recorded in 1990), plus other recordings for Justin Time and Soul Note later in the decade. During the 2000s and 2010s, he recorded several dates for CAM Jazz, including 2008’s Other People with the Hugo Wolf String Quartet and 2011’s One of Many with Steve Swallow.
Wheeler died on September 18, 2014 after a brief illness. His final studio session, the Manfred Eicher-produced Songs for Quintet, was released in 2015 on what would have been Wheeler’s 85th birthday.