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Matt Wilson Invites Drummers to Explore the Avant-Garde

Fun with freedom

Billy Higgins
Paul Motian
Matt Wilson

When I was 13 my older brother gave me a very hip Christmas present. It was a three-LP collection called The Drums, released on the ABC/Impulse label in 1974. The recordings represented the spectrum of the jazz-drumming legacy, from Warren “Baby” Dodds to Barry Altschul. A few of the names I was familiar with-Louie Bellson, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones-but most of the drummers I did not recognize.

One of the more adventurous selections, Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts” with drummer Milford Graves, mystified me. Rather than playing a steady beat to accompany the music, Mr. Graves was reacting independently with sounds. At first I thought the band was not playing together because there was no defined central pulse. But the more I listened, the more I realized they were very together. The band allowed the music to move and be very flexible and elastic. Mr. Graves was free to dance around and connect with the melody where he chose. I loved the freedom, joy and feeling in the sound.

I have come to realize how my playing and approach was heavily influenced by this set of recordings. I listened to Sid Catlett, Papa Jo Jones and Kenny Clarke along with Elvin Jones, Rashied Ali, Ed Blackwell, Sunny Murray, Beaver Harris and Paul Motian. I totally dug the swinging selections and I was also way into the music where the drummers played looser. I just thought that these recordings were what jazz drumming represented. Ah, ignorance is bliss!

As a teacher, I believe embracing concepts associated with freer ways of playing allows us more ways of serving the music. So where does one begin to welcome these ideas into his or her playing?


A first step is to take on a more active role, to be present in the music by playing with your fellow musicians rather than playing behind them. Learn the song melodies on the drums and be more compositional in how you orchestrate both your accompanying and soloing. Pay attention to areas in a song where you can loosen up the time feel and play phrases from the music. Experiment with how you balance the elements.

Try these approaches:

• Playing the tune’s melody on the drums as accompaniment-a “time melody.”


• Time melody with phrases from the song.

• Playing just the song phrases, being more horn-like.

• Being an independent voice in the song. Add textures to the song by “painting” with sonic textures and timbres. Experiment with levels and dimensions of activity: sparse to active, thin to thick.

• Remember to listen and breathe. Be present in the moment.

Listen to drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins and how they orchestrate the melodies of Ornette Coleman. Also check out drummer Andrew Cyrille and how he shapes the contours of compositions.


Often our primary concern is maintaining steady time. Allow yourself to explore ways of approaching and playing “out of time” and with “time dynamics” to welcome a looser array of time feels.

Experiment with these ideas:

• Invite the band to play out of time collectively, and experiment with ways of shaping the overall form. Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts” with Milford Graves is a great example.

• Play a melody freely over a steady time feel and welcome a layering of tempos. Ornette Coleman’s classic “Lonely Woman” demonstrates this feeling.

• Everyone in the band plays time independently and allows connections to occur spontaneously. I love the music of Paul Motian, where this flavor of playing was often welcomed.


• Play a melody collectively and allow it to speed up and slow down. Experiment with the rates and shapes of the variations. Trumpeter Don Cherry’s Blue Note masterpiece Complete Communion, with Ed Blackwell, has sections where this occurs.

• Again, please listen and breathe. Play with intent.

You may worry that out-of-time expression will affect your ability to keep steady time. I actually believe it welcomes you to connect deeper with pulse because you have experienced it in different ways.

Now gather some of your friends and get into the improv sandbox. You may experience the spontaneous compositions all sounding the same. What are ways to add variety to your performances? Imposing limitations can yield results. For example, they can be a collective choice-a sparse and quiet piece. Or they can be self-imposed: contribute to the piece using a stick on your ride cymbal and mallet on your floor tom. Commit and do not abandon your intentions. Let the music emerge with little effort.


We often do not want to respect what may be a clear ending. Let the pieces end. There is always more to explore. This awareness opens up our big-picture sensitivity that will apply to any performance setting in which we are fortunate to participate.

That brings me to my closing thoughts. I do my best not to categorize music. As my dear friend and mentor Joe Lovano says, “I don’t play free jazz, I play jazz free!”

Approach each setting you are fortunate to perform in with openness, goodwill, respect and spirit. Hear and feel what you play and offer it to the music with honesty, clarity, love and grace. Music is a reciprocal art form, so please become equally aware of how you receive the music of your fellow musicians. Always keep in mind how truly fortunate we are to have the opportunity to play and welcome music with our friends. It is truly a gift. Now go have fun!

Matt Wilson is one of jazz’s most respected drummers and bandleaders and a trusted educator. His most recent release is Gathering Call (Palmetto), featuring his quartet plus special guest John Medeski. Visit him online at

Originally Published