JJ Wheeler at the Hive, Shrewsbury, Saturday 10 March 2012
Review by Ian Mann (www.thejazzmann.com)
Ian Mann enjoys a performance by the J J Wheeler Quintet and takes a look at their newly released album "Unconventional".
Young drummer and composer Jonathan (J J) Wheeler graduated from the acclaimed Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire in 2011 and is now undertaking post graduate studies on a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in London. A skilled musician and composer Wheeler also has a keen eye for the practicalities of the music business. An enterprising entrepreneurial streak (akin perhaps to that of bassist Michael Janisch) has already seen him set up his own Mongrel record label and 2012 has already yielded two releases. The first of these, “The Blue Room”, an intriguing duo set with the experienced Birmingham based pianist Steve Tromans is reviewed elsewhere on this site. Cardiff Jazz stalwart Roger Warburton later told me how impressed he had been by the duo’s recent live performance at the city’s Dempsey’s venue.
Mongrel’s second release documents the music of Wheeler’s regular working quintet, still mainly comprised of Birmingham Conservatoire students. The album is called “Unconventional”, a bold title that has polarised opinions. The record was savaged by Daniel Spicer in Jazzwise but praised to the skies by Duncan Heining in Jazz UK (even if he did confuse the leader with former Welsh rugby international winger J J Williams). I’m inclined to adopt a position somewhere between these two extremes but inclining towards Duncan’s point of view, “Unconventional” is an enjoyable album with the promise of even greater things to come. On the evidence of his brief career thus far Wheeler has the potential to become a significant figure on the UK jazz scene as player, composer, bandleader and all round mover and shaker.
Wheeler’s quintet had made a previous successful visit to The Hive and although tonight’s attendance was well down on the two previous sell out performances by elder statesmen Art Themen and Jim Mullen there was still enough of a crowd to generate a good atmosphere. Those who did turn up were treated to two engaging sets of largely original music played by a frighteningly young and frighteningly competent quintet. The programme consisted of all the tunes on the album, including the now almost obligatory Radiohead cover, plus a number of new Wheeler compositions.
Tonight’s line up differed slightly from that deployed on the record. The group’s original tenor saxophonist Charlie Portas has quit professional music making and gone back to college to study medicine-”clever boy Charlie” observed Wheeler, “he’ll make more money than the rest of us put together”.
Portas has been replaced by Nadim Teimoori who slotted into the group alongside Chris Maddock (alto sax), Ralph Brown (keyboard) and Tom Moore (double bass) with Wheeler leading from the drums.
The quintet kicked off with a brief snapshot of Miles Davis’ “The Theme” before launching into Wheeler’s “Dennis The Menace”, the opening track of the “Unconventional” album. Based around a nagging horn phrase the piece is a good summation of the quintet sound, an updating of bebop and hard bop virtues but with more contemporary elements thrown into the mix, a hint of M-Base perhaps plus the music of bassist and bandleader Dave Holland, an acknowledged influence and a sometime tutor at Birmingham Conservatoire. The main soloist here was Chris Maddock on alto sax with Wheeler also impressing in a feature underpinned by the solid bass of Tom Moore. There were one or two sound problems at the outset which rather marred this first item but once these had been sorted out the rest of the evening proved to be thoroughly enjoyable.
Pianist Ralph Brown’s “Itsy Bitsy” was distinguished by its complex harmonies (Wheeler insinuated that his colleague had written it when under the influence of alcohol) but remained eminently accessible. Solos came from the impressive Teimoori on tenor and Brown at the keyboard, a Roland 300SX. Although the album deploys acoustic piano Brown cleverly adapted his technique to the electric instrument bringing an authentic 1970’s electric piano sound to the proceedings that suited the music very well. Once again the piece ended with a drum feature with Wheeler circumnavigating his kit above an insistent keyboard vamp.
One of Wheeler’s newer tunes, “Trust Me”, embraced a subtle keyboard led funkiness that framed solos from Maddock and Brown before a gospel like coda. This was followed by a convincing cover of Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place” from the “Kid A” album. The tune also appears on “Unconventional” and began atmospherically with wispy tenor sax and Wheeler’s mallet rumbles before the two horns began to intertwine as the tune gained momentum. The interplay between the two young saxophonists was consistently impressive, contrasting and complementing as appropriate. Both also proved to be accomplished soloists with Teimoori taking the honours here before the band coalesced for an anthemic climax.
The only true ballad moment in the first set came with Wheeler’s “Solitude”, also sourced from the album. Brown adopted a celeste like tone for his delicate electric piano solo and left handed bassist Tom Moore’s beautifully articulated bass solo combined resonance with an admirable lyricism. I normally get to see Moore as part of guitarist Remi Harris’ gypsy jazz trio so it was interesting to observe him in another context. He’s a highly versatile young player and another that I’m sure we’ll hear a lot more of.
Among Wheeler’s drum tutors at Birmingham was the late, great Tony Levin (1940-2011), a good friend of Shropshire Jazz. Introducing the final tune of the first set Wheeler spoke fondly and movingly of Levin and explained that he (Levin) was indirectly responsible for the tune’s title. When instructing Wheeler in brush techniques he’d urge him to “imagine you’re flicking paint”. Hence “Flicking Paint” as the title for this bop flavoured album track featuring some terrific horn interplay, a gently probing Maddock alto solo and of course a virtuoso drum solo with Wheeler making particularly imaginative use of bass drum patterns. Combined with the eulogy to Levin this was a memorable way to close a highly competent, value for money first set.
The quintet restarted with a busy, complex, hard grooving version of the Joe Henderson classic “Shades Of Jade”. Appropriately Teimoori dug in on tenor for a gritty solo and Wheeler reminded everybody whose band it was with another colourful solo drum passage.
Another new Wheeler composition “Yoshi’s Island” (the title apparently a computer game reference rather than a homage to the famous West Coast jazz club) introduced a more contemporary, urban sound with neatly contrasting saxophone solos. Maddock, on alto, introduced a more reflective feel to the music before being superseded by Teimoori’s funky, gutsy tenor and Brown’s dirty sounding electric piano. This hard hitting item proved to be a particular crowd favourite and will doubtless some day find its way on to the quintet’s second album.
From the first album the title “27 Junctions” refers to the long drive down the M5 from Birmingham to Exeter where Wheeler’s girlfriend was living. The tune was thus an unexpectedly gentle ballad with an appropriately episodic quality. Solo highlights came from Teimoori’s tender tenor and Moore’s astonishingly fluent bass.
“Latest Developments”, which also appears on the album, was Wheeler’s first ever composition for the band. The leader’s colourful hand drum intro eventually coalesced into the groove that carries the piece. It’s an exciting composition embracing considerable dynamic contrasts and here featuring
racing unison sax lines, incisive alto and keyboard solos and finally a rousing group climax. By way of contrast the pretty “Lullaby” with its feathery alto solo and delicately brushed drum accompaniment was another example of Wheeler’s skills as a ballad writer.
The band ended with “Cider Mickey”, also the closing track on the “Unconventional” album. Named after a well known Birmingham character the piece juxtaposes driving, horn led hard bop passages with quieter, positively woozy sections, no doubt intended to reflect Mickey’s mercurial and not entirely sober character. Wonky alto sax, punctuated by piano and bass, was underpinned by almost subliminal tenor sax trills as the piece lurched along. Brown delivered a positively feverish keyboard solo as the horns temporarily subsided and Moore and Wheeler offered comment and punctuation to the decidedly off kilter proceedings. Some elements of this musical portrait may have been almost comic but the composition as a whole contained many audacious and sophisticated musical ideas.
The relatively modest size of the audience entailed that there was no encore but it was obvious that those present had very much enjoyed what they’d heard with JJ doing brisk business on the CD stall. The quintet had played the album in its entirety (albeit in a different order) alongside a number of newer compositions that promise well for their next offering. Now under the tuition of Martin France and Jeff Williams (like his contemporary Dave Hamblett who I’d seen just a couple of night previously with pianist Ivo Neame’s quintet) Wheeler is already a highly competent drummer and a very promising composer. His assured presentation skills and entrepreneurial flair should also stand him in good stead as he builds a career on the UK jazz scene. Expect to hear a lot more of J J Wheeler and his talented young contemporaries, some of whom are still studying in Birmingham. Wheeler, in particular, seems to have the ability, intelligence and drive to become a significant figure in the music. In the meantime both “The Blue Room” and “Unconditional” are well worth a listen, both are real “growers”.