The album is also significant at it brings together something of a supergroup and is also Keith Jarrett’s last appearance as a sideman…
ECM 1069 / 450 5346 (LP)
Kenny Wheeler (flugelhorn); (drums)
Recorded June 1975
Reissued on LP as part of the Luminessence series of vinyl releases capturing some of ECMs most important recordings, Gnu High was indeed an auspicious leader debut for the imprint from Kenny Wheeler. The album comes in a gatefold sleeve with new liner notes by Wheeler’s biographer, Nick Smart shedding further light on the sessions and the trumpeter’s view of his own musical development.
Long regarded as one of Kenny’s finest albums, Gnu High is not the flawless masterpiece claimed by some, that would come will the follow up Deer Wan, but it does present Wheeler at an important part of his career both as a small group composer and soloist.
The album is also significant at it brings together something of a supergroup and is also Keith Jarrett’s last appearance as a sideman. Rather than being an out and out triumph, the music is not without a sense of unease that appears to come from the pianist, although it is Jarrett who takes some of the most interesting and indeed compelling solos of the set.
Side one of the LP is taken up with one long composition, ‘Heyoke’ in which the theme and Wheeler’s flugelhorn weaves in and out of the composition as well as soloing strongly. His tone on the flugel can be round and full one minute and then suddenly have a biting attack and strident delivery of the trumpet.
This creates a wonderful tension and release within his solos, and indeed in the written passages too. If previous recordings by Wheeler found him sounding a little diffident, here he comes across as definitely knowing his own mind and the confidence to steer the quartet through the music.
Within the framework of ‘Heyoke’ the pianist gets in three outstanding solos. Two accompanied by bass and drums and the middle of the three as a solo piano improvisation. Despite an apparent unease, Jarrett is thoroughly in command of Wheeler’s concept, and one cannot shake the feeling that it is perhaps bassist Dave Holland that throws the pianist a curve ball or two.
Holland knew Wheeler from his association with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble in the mid-sixties, and the bassist and Jack DeJohnette were familiar with each other’s playing from stints with Miles Davis, and although a few years away the drummer would go onto to form the Standards Trion with Jarrett; but it seems that Holland and Jarrett just did not find sufficient common ground to make the rhythm section cohere in the way in which it might have.
The above, however, should not detract from some exemplary playing and fine compositions for Kenny Wheeler, and while the opening track is perhaps the highlight in terms of compositional structure and Jarrett’s extraordinary solos, the title track is also noteworthy in showcasing Wheeler’s small group writing and the quartet let off steam with glorious abandon in ‘Smatter’ which is the closest thing we get to a straight forward blowing vehicle.
Reviewed by Nick Lea