Matt Wilson Quartet with John Medeski

Scullers Jazz Club, Boston, MA, 1/29/2014

The Matt Wilson Quartet with John Medeski played for an appreciative audience in Boston, where Wilson lived and played in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As well as his masterful drum work, Wilson is known for exploring and incorporating various styles in his two groups, Arts & Crafts and the longer-running quartet. The quartet currently includes Jeff Lederer on tenor and soprano sax and clarinet, Kirk Knuffke on cornet, and Chris Lightcap on bass. This evening, they were joined by pianist John Medeski, with whom Wilson has worked over the years. All the evening’s selections except one came from the extended Quartet’s recently released CD, “Gathering Call.”

They opened with three selections that flowed together, starting with the invocational “Gathering Call.” Wilson’s drum flourishes alternated with an emphatic five-note theme played in unison by Knuffke on cornet and Lederer on tenor sax. “Some Assembly Required” opened with a unison horn theme that resembled that of “Gathering Call,” alternating with Wilson’s deft turns, followed by a second, busier theme. Wilson’s continuous and subtly varied drum work anchored the frenetic tempo, while Lederer and Medeski played energetic solos. “Dancing Waters” turned the mood and style to a free-form sonic picture of watery depths. At the start, Lightcap played a lovely solo that ranged over melodic ideas, sometimes with harmony. While the Knuffke and Lederer quietly interwove and Wilson brushed cymbals, Medeski used high scintillating patterns to suggest sunlight glinting on water.

The style shifted dramatically with Duke Ellington’s “You Dirty Dog,” which Wilson noted was introduced on the 1962 Ellington recording with Coleman Hawkins. In the original version Ellington’s 10-piece group showcased Hawkins, while in this arrangement the piano took the lead. Medeski energetically channeled Ellington’s piano sound with ringing bass jabs, off-beat dissonant chords, and chromatically embellished melody lines in parallel multiple octaves and thick block chords. Wilson started his solo by playing the melody note-for-note, demonstrating how much pitch and sustain a good drummer can produce.

Wilson dedicated the evening’s performance of his composition “Hope (For the Cause)” to the recently deceased Pete Seeger. A subdued blend of cornet and clarinet conveyed fragility, yet confidence. Lederer’s clarinet playing in the high register with tremolo was particularly expressive. At the song’s close, the musicians joined in playing a short melodic pattern on novelty hand bells, high-pitched but somber. The bell tune emerged as the opening of “Raga,” released in a somewhat different version on Wilson’s disc Humidity (2003). The horns played a simple minor modal tune that suggested Balkan folk dance. Wilson set a fast pulse with tambourine and kept the beat with high hat while he played a variety of drums and cymbals. A ring of jingle bells ended up on top of the high hat for a unique jingly beat.

Another contrast in mood and texture arrived with “If I Were a Boy,” by Toby Gad and Brittany Jean Carlson. The pop song is known for its performance by vocalist Beyoncé, and this spare treatment effectively captured its sound and feeling. Knuffke’s fluid tone on cornet perfectly suited the plain pentatonic melody, with Lightcap quietly plucking a harmonized bass that recalled a guitar. Wilson added unobtrusive rock-style drums, and Lederer’s and Medeski’s improvising around the melody built the intensity.

Following the conversational theme was “How Ya Going?,” which Wilson explained he named after a common greeting in Australia, where he has toured. The groove was set by Lightcap and Wilson, who added some subtle irregular accents. Knuffke and Lederer (on soprano sax) in unison played the short simple tune. Medeski joined in with contrapuntal bursts with their own rhythm, including a swing feel that contrasted with the even-eighth-note feel of the song. Soon, the sound became a confab of comments on the tune, pulled back into the melody at the end.

Wilson recalled his time in Boston and, as a longtime musical educator, expressed appreciation of its education-rich environment. After shout-outs to musical colleagues in the audience, he invited any musicians in attendance to join the group for the closing number, Duke Ellington’s up-tempo blues “Main Stem.” Two women with alto saxes came forward, each taking a solo that started tentatively but quickly picked up speed and audience enthusiasm. Sharing the stage and the fun seemed to be a natural part of the group’s performance.

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Virginia A. Schaefer