Hard Rubber Orchestra fetes composer Kenny Wheeler

John Korsrud says the composer is a humble giant of jazz composition.

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      If things had gone ever so slightly sideways, John Korsrud could be facing a costly and embarrassing situation—but he’d also have more great music in his hands than he’d ever dreamed possible.

      As the Hard Rubber Orchestra bandleader explains, he’d wanted to do an evening of Toronto-born, U.K.–based jazz composer Kenny Wheeler’s music ever since studying with him at the Banff Centre during the summer of 1984. And what better way to celebrate the still vital 83-year-old’s genius than to commission a new work from his pen?

      Things must have gotten confused somewhere between Vancouver and London, however. In their initial discussion, Korsrud thought he was just sounding Wheeler out to see if he’d be interested, but the great trumpeter and composer thought it was a done deal.

      “Kenny was open to writing the piece for us,” Korsrud reports, on the line from his home. “But the funny thing is that to find money for him, we had to apply for a grant to the Canada Council, and we’d asked him to write a 10-minute piece for us. To our horror and delight, he wrote a 30-minute piece before the result of the competition had even been announced. Luckily, we did get the grant, because it would have been an awkward situation otherwise.”

      Well, there’s always Kickstarter, although it’s unlikely Wheeler knows what that is. He doesn’t do email, and still writes his music out in his distinctive slanting hand rather than using computerized compositional tools. But for the past 40 years or more he’s been a progressive force in contemporary music, whether penning long-form charts for various European radio orchestras, waxing eloquent on the trumpet in the company of free-jazz titans Anthony Braxton and Evan Parker, or exploring near-ambient terrain with his Azimuth trio of himself, pianist John Taylor, and singer Norma Winstone.

      As Korsrud notes, however, Wheeler is “Canadian to the third power”. He’s revered by his colleagues—even Miles Davis was a fan—but he’s also so self-effacing that he’s barely known to the general public.

      “He comes across as the typical absent-minded professor type. And everyone loves him: he’s the sweetest man, very humble. But he’s just a giant of jazz and of jazz-orchestra composition.”

      For proof, consider this: Wheeler’s Toronto acolytes Mike Herriott (trumpet) and Christine Duncan (voice) are paying their own airfare so that they can come out to the West Coast and join the 18-piece Hard Rubber Orchestra for this weekend’s tribute. Also joining the band as conductor will be Vancouver trombonist Hugh Fraser, who was Wheeler’s right-hand man for many years.

      As with Korsrud, their friendship dates back to the class of ’84 at the Banff Centre’s summer jazz and creative music workshop.

      “I got the chance to rehearse his music and conduct his band, ’cause he was so shy he would never stand in front of the musicians,” Fraser explains in a separate telephone interview. “But the really deep connection happened when I went over to London to study with him in 1987. I ended up staying there for about four or five years. He hired me to play in his band and I copied music for him, and we’ve been collaborating ever since.”

      Fraser sees Wheeler’s compositional genius as an outgrowth of his diverse musical experiences, which range from playing lead trumpet in his father’s swing band to studying composition with Polish-Canadian modernist John Weinzweig to helping invent free improvisation in London during the 1960s.

      “Norma Winston, his long-time singer and associate, put it very well when someone asked, ‘Why isn’t Kenny more well-known?’ And she said it was because his music really doesn’t have any genre or time frame,” Fraser notes. “You can’t really call it bebop, you can’t call it free jazz, you can’t call it Palestrina, but it draws from all those sources.”

      Knowing that, Fraser adds, will make it easier for him to direct the Hard Rubber Orchestra when it premieres Wheeler’s new (and as yet untitled) masterpiece on Saturday night.

      “On one hand, it’s the easiest thing in the world: just do what sounds right,” he says. “But to do that with such massive resources, and with written music and free music going at the same time, takes an understanding of the spirit of the music, the freedom. It’s about never losing control, but on the other hand never getting into a lull where the musicians are just counting bars. That’s the beauty of it: it makes the audience and the performers engaged with the music at every point. And that’s rare!”

      The Hard Rubber Orchestra plays the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodward’s on Saturday (October 19).