April 2003

Matt Wilson Quartet
Humidity
Palmetto Records

Humidity is a smorgasbord of 12 songs and settings, nine composed by the New York drummer-leader Matt Wilson. The band plays bop, free-bop and free improvisation, mostly in a quartet setting, and the variety of textures and rhythms is the main attraction.

The opening "Thank You Billy Higgins" is a fine tribute with an Ornette Coleman-ish theme and crisp drums kicking roughneck tenor and alto solos. There are then two more fast numbers ("Swimming in the Trees" and "Cooperation"); two slow pastoral pieces with cool colors ("Free Willy" and "Wall Shadows"); an Indian-music pastiche ("Raga"); and, after "Code Yellow," the title tune, which introduces trumpeter John Carlson and trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, whose moments of free collective improvisation alternate with a recurring rock pattern.

"Don't Blame Me" pops up next and it's a jokey nonballad: the standard theme, by arranger and tenor/soprano saxophonist and clarinetist Jeff Lederer, is distilled to a few abstract chords and almost no bridge. There's some tantalizing, even emotional soloing, especially in the fast pieces, but nobody stretches out; Wilson's settings are meant to be more interesting, or perhaps diverting, than passionate.

Lederer is the most prominent soloist on Humidity. His thematic improvisation style on tenor involves seizing motives, ripping at them like a starving beast, twisting them into blues morsels; imagine early Wayne Shorter as reinterpreted into free-bop by a tenor-playing Mal Waldron. But on the other hand, the long-tone and trilling climaxes of his "Don't Blame Me" solo sound like flashy set pieces-is Lederer a serious improviser or a too-sophisticated showman?

Lederer's stylistic opposite is the madly eclectic altoist Andrew D'Angelo, basically a Dolphy man who also freely and rather messily associates Coleman, bop and R-&-B phrases. Bassist Yosuke Inoue's sound and Charlie Haden-like playing are just fine. As for the leader, Wilson shapes three drum solos as thematic improvisations and provides colorful backgrounds throughout the album; his wife, Felicia Wilson, can be heard on violin on "Swimming in the Trees," "Humidity" and the closing tune, "Beginnings of a Memory."

Humidity is filled with good, original music, but it's often more admirable than it is engaging-the variety of settings seems to me a substitute for feeling, but I do want to hear more of Lederer.

Originally published in April 2003
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