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Matt Wilson: Living History

Matt Wilson by Jimmy Katz
Matt Wilson by Jimmy Katz

If you’ve ever seen Matt Wilson in action, then you’ve probably seen him smile. It happens often in the course of his playing, and it has a way of spreading: across the bandstand, throughout a club, along the expanse of a festival hall. His posture and bearing at the drums communicates an upright whimsy, perhaps especially when he’s wearing a coat and tie-which, combined with his dark-frame glasses and gray-streaked hair, can call to mind a younger version of Minnesota Senator Al Franken. And yes, it’s true: He’s good enough, and smart enough, to make you like him. In fact, he’s probably the most blithely sociable jazz drummer since the late Billy Higgins, who earned the fond sobriquet Smiling Billy, and who also happens to be Wilson’s clearest musical precursor.

“Matt exudes joy and a sense of well-being on the bandstand,” says pianist-composer Myra Melford, who works alongside Wilson in the avant-garde collective Trio M, and occasionally in her ensemble Be Bread. “I’m constantly smiling when I’m playing with him, and I know this is transmitted to the audience as well as the ensemble members.”

Terell Stafford, the trumpeter in Wilson’s band Arts & Crafts, uses similar terms to describe his first time ever playing with the drummer: “I would turn around and we were smiling at each other the whole performance.” That was at a conference of the International Association for Jazz Education, about a decade ago-not long after Wilson released an album called Smile, its cover emblazoned with a photo of his grinning mug.

Of course, you don’t get to be one of the steadiest-working drummers in jazz on the merits of goofy charm alone. Consult Wilson’s discography of the last year or two, which includes sterling albums by pianist Denny Zeitlin (In Concert, Sunnyside); bassist Mario Pavone with pianist Paul Bley (Trio Arc, Playscape); soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom (Mental Weather, Outline); and multi-reedist Ted Nash (The Mancini Project, Palmetto). On each of those titles-as on That’s Gonna Leave a Mark (Palmetto), the excellent new release by the Matt Wilson Quartet-you’ll hear the mix of perceptive flow and responsive flexibility that has long been his unassuming trademark. There are a few more emphatically dazzling drummers working today, but almost nobody in Wilson’s peer group with a broader grasp of jazz history, or a more natural sense of time, or a stronger signature as a bandleader, or more goodwill among his fellow players.

“In addition to being a great drummer, Matt is a bandleader and composer,” says bassist Ben Allison. “So he’s always thinking about the tune we’re playing-about making clear statements that, although often surprising, never feel out of place. He’s in the moment when he plays and has a keen sense of group interplay. In a way, he’s always playing ‘free.'”

Alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, one of a handful of certified jazz legends to have employed Wilson, is no less enthusiastic: “I don’t think I’ve ever heard him play an unmusical hit on the drums and cymbals. That to me is very admirable. And, of course, he’s got a great sense of humor, and he has no compunction to release it at any point.” He adds: “When we’re playing together, it’s fun. Every time I look at him, I smile.”

So here’s Matt Wilson, amiably swashbuckling his left-side cymbal in a low-ceilinged Greenwich Village club. It’s a late-summer weeknight at the Cornelia Street Café, and the gig is relaxed, though that’s no indication of its merits. Nir Felder, a guitarist of recent Berklee College of Music pedigree, is the bandleader, and he has brought along one of his mentors, alto saxophonist Greg Osby. The set opens with a Charlie Parker tune, a blues called “Big Foot,” and from Beat One there’s the pull of forward-tilt swing.

Wilson, locking in with bassist Doug Weiss, initially keeps his ride pattern loose but driving; his snare-drum annotations, played with the left hand, are effectively sparse. Throughout the duration of Osby’s solo, a smart and angular thing, he never once uses his hi-hat, or breaks the pattern of his ride. But at the solo handoff to Felder, he switches to his right-side cymbal, for a brighter tonality, and strikes up a chattering conversation between his hi-hat and snare. It’s a change both pervasive and subtle, like flicking on a new light in the room. And it’s a decision motivated purely by intuition, though Wilson has no problem explaining it later. “Behind Greg it was more of a horizontal time feel,” he says. “When I got to Nir’s solo, I thought I could divide the bar up a bit more.”

The second tune in the set is a rhythmically complex invention of Felder’s called “Memorial,” and somehow Wilson, sight-reading on the bandstand, makes it open up and breathe. After heeding a halting pulse during the song’s opening stretch, he delves into tumbling abstraction, inviting Osby along with him. Together they bob and weave, pulling further and further away from tempo, but with a toehold in tonality. Osby, at 49, and Wilson, at 45, are a full generation removed from Felder, and their treatment of his music suggests casual mastery crossed with a flicker of surprise. “Sometimes it’s more exciting not to know too much, and really react more,” Wilson says after the set. “I love that first time, when you’re trying stuff out. I always tell people that you only play a piece of music for the first time once. And if you approach every gig that way, it’s cool.”

It’s just one of the lessons Wilson attributes to his apprenticeship with the late tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman-or to put it another way, one drop in the ocean of insight that the jazz life has afforded him. “Just to have had that experience of being with Dewey for that long, or being around Charlie,” he muses, referring to bassist Charlie Haden, in whose Liberation Music Orchestra he has memorably played. “There’s no substitute for the hang. I was never one of these people who play the gig and then go to bed. When you get in company with these people-Buster Williams is another one, for me-you just learn so much. No university will give you that. Not that any one of these guys have ever said that much to me about how to play, but one little thing here or there will do it. I played with Dewey for 12 years and I think he told me like five things.”

Read Lee Mergner’s interview with Alonzo Bodden on jazz and comedy.

Originally Published