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Before & After: Steve Wilson

On the importance of the old school

Steve Wilson (photo by John Abbott)
Steve Wilson (photo by John Abbott)

Multi-instrumentalist Steve Wilson, best known as an alto and soprano saxophonist, is busier than ever these days. One look at his tour schedule can confirm that fact: a recent U.S. trek with the Maria Schneider Orchestra; a date with Christian McBride’s big band and another alongside the bassist in a one-off Weather Report tribute; duo sets with drummer Lewis Nash, pianist Fred Hersch and others; East and West Coast performances of an all-star salute to Stephen Sondheim. Wilson, 56, is also an in-demand clinician, and teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, the City College of New York and the Juilliard School. His most recent release as a leader is Live in New York: The Vanguard Sessions (Random Act), and his next effort will be the vinyl-only release Sit Back, Relax & Unwind (J.M.I.), due out later this year. In early March, we carved out some listening time at the Watergate Hotel, prior to the Schneider Orchestra’s soundcheck a stone’s throw away at the Kennedy Center.

1. Nate Smith
“Bounce: Parts I & II” (KINFOLK: Postcards From Everywhere, Ropeadope). Smith, drums; Jaleel Shaw, alto saxophone; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone; Jeremy Most, guitar; Kris Bowers, Rhodes; Fima Ephron, electric bass. Recorded in 2014.

BEFORE: [ten seconds in] I love it already. I know right away that’s Chris Potter, tenor. He’s got a very distinctive sound. When the horn is in his mouth, he’s always in that flow. I love the groove, man. I grew up on funk and that was just very funky. The drum and bass groove was really happening. There’s that dance factor, so it pulls you in. And even the line they constructed—it wasn’t as if they tried to superimpose anything. They put it right in the fabric of the groove. Even if you’re doing an asymmetrical rhythm, if it’s in the groove it’s gonna work. Interesting about the second part, what you might call a lounge vibe. But I dug it. I also like the length of the piece. They said what they needed to say, then let’s take it out. I loved it. It resonated with me. Was it Dave Binney on alto?

AFTER: Oh, this is Nate’s record? I had a feeling it was Nate on drums. He just played in my band a few weeks ago. Nate’s fantastic, a great musician. Is this the one that just came out? He was just finishing this up when we worked together. I have to get this. I love it. Yeah, Jaleel. That makes sense. That groove is deep.


2. The Frank Wess Septet
“I Hear Ya Talkin’” (Opus de Blues, Savoy Jazz). Wess, alto saxophone; Thad Jones, trumpet; Curtis Fuller, trombone; Charlie Fowlkes, baritone saxophone; Hank Jones, piano; Eddie Jones, bass; Gus Johnson, drums. Recorded in 1959.

BEFORE: Fantastic. First thing that comes to mind is it’s probably a 1960s recording. I love the sound of the ’60s. Second, that’s still like the golden age: Those guys were doing sessions all the time, so you had this proliferation of great players, great writing. It was just the order of the day.

I’m not sure who these players are. I was going to say Jerry Dodgion, but there’s a lot of [Johnny] Hodges in there. I think it sounds like Dodgion and his work with Oliver Nelson and [Thad Jones and Mel Lewis]. He’s one of my role models, one of my musical godfathers. A lot of what I do as a lead alto comes straight from Jerry Dodgion. I love the sound of those dates, the craftsmanship. It’s swingin’ and tippin’. I love it. I could live by that all day long.

AFTER: Ah, Frank. Oh, man. This is great stuff. I used to tell Frank I want to be like him when I grow up. He had such a long, distinguished career and played with so many people. He was like money in the bank; you knew if he was on the gig it was going to be great. Same with Joe Wilder, with their consistency and identifiable sounds and total musicianship. They didn’t set out to be stars. Of course, they’re exalted among their peers and by me—that’s what really counts. I have to remind myself of that, because I came through the Young Lions phase in the ’80s. When I came to New York, I set out to find the Frank Wesses and the Joe Wilders, to see how those guys conducted themselves. They were respected by everyone who worked with them, and for good reason. No frills, no gratuitous writing; it’s like, “Let’s just swing and have a good time.” It doesn’t get any better than that.


3. The Vitral Saxophone Quartet
“Wapango” (Kites Over Havana, Sunnyside). Oscar Gongora, soprano; Roman Filiu, alto and soprano; Alejandro Rios, alto and tenor; Raul Cordies, baritone. Recorded in 2014.

BEFORE: That’s a fun little piece. I got a deeper appreciation for classical saxophone a few years ago. I love the baritone sound and the soprano player. For the alto and tenor, the prototypical classical sound is tricky—particularly the alto, because the alto saxophone is the hardest to master. Even when you play it in tune, it doesn’t have the same colors. So while I think this is well played by the quartet, compositionally I thought they could have skipped some of the middle because it kept going back. I liked the composition; it was fun. It’s playful. It didn’t excite me but I liked it.

You chuckled at the end. Why?

It was the sharp-9 chord. I like the soprano part up in the altissimo register. It’s hard to nail those pitches up there. I’ve only played one classical piece in public, but you get so much from it in terms of knowing your instrument and becoming a better player. These guys sound really good together.


AFTER: I’ve never heard of them. The baritone sound was so open,
but the sound of the alto was somewhat closed. That’s a very hard balance to negotiate.

4. Steve Lacy/Elvin Jones
“Evidence” (That’s the Way I Feel Now, A&M). Lacy, soprano saxophone; Jones, drums. Released in 1984.

BEFORE: Uh oh. What instrument is that? This is not a saxophone. Or maybe it’s a soprano with the mic inside the bell? There’s some Elvin going on. I love the tone of the drums. Wow. That’s some serious altissimo. It’s a bit nasal, and I wondered if it was [Joe] Lovano with his tarogato. I was confused, because it’s “Evidence” but it sounded like they left the form, and I assume they meant to do that. I’m more intrigued by the sound of the saxophone than anything. It’s different. He’s got some chops. That’s impressive. Drummer’s coming out of Elvin Jones.

AFTER: That’s Steve Lacy? Wow. The mic’ing is weird. The sound is very narrow. I’ve never heard him sound that nasal. And he left the form [laughs]. Elvin is crisp. Lacy is one of the great pioneers. I haven’t listened to a ton of him—some of the things with Gil Evans. I saw him live with Roswell Rudd. It was a fun gig. He’s not one of my favorite soprano players, but I appreciate him greatly. It’s just a taste thing. I have a great deal of respect for him.


5. Earl Bostic
“Up There in Orbit” (Dance Music From the Bostic Workshop, King). Bostic, alto saxophone; Johnny Gray, Allan Seltzer, guitars; Claude Jones, organ; Johnny Pate, bass; Isaac “Redd” Holt, drums; Frank Rullo, percussion. Recorded in 1958.

BEFORE: I know this one: “Blues in Orbit.” Man, I use this piece in the saxophone class at CCNY. Earl Bostic was one of the great technicians of the saxophone, and John Coltrane played in his band for a minute. He’s one of the pioneers of R&B saxophone. So when guys talk about the altissimo register, I say check this out. The first time I heard this it sounded like a Dick Dale kind of thing. Jimmy Heath, Frank Wess and Lou Donaldson all told me Earl Bostic could do stuff on the saxophone that nobody else could. There was nobody who could outplay him. He had range and amazing technique, and [showcases those qualities on this piece in particular], because it builds and builds and he goes up to a double high C, which is insane. We think of extended range as an octave above the F that’s on the horn, and he goes another fifth above that. That’s fingering and embouchure. And the higher you go, the more exacting you have to be. You can’t just bite the reed or the mouthpiece. That takes years and years to develop that. You try to do that now and you could hurt yourself [laughs]. I love the look on [young musicians’ faces] when I play this for them.

6. Bohemian Trio
“Tarde en la Lisa” (Okónkolo, Innova). Orlando Alonso, piano; Yosvany Terry, saxophone, percussion; Yves Dharamraj, cello. Recorded in 2016.

BEFORE: I like that. It reminds me of some of the stuff I did with Billy Childs, and I’d like to play more of this kind of thing. Nice piece, exciting piece. To hear the cello and saxophone together is beautiful. Great playing, everybody. It’s uplifting, energetic, bends your ear a little bit, takes you places. I love the concept. I think we’re going to hear a lot more music going this way. A lot of players coming through school are studying both classical and jazz, and a lot of classical musicians want to play more music with an improvisatory element. I love it.


AFTER: Yosvany! I’ve never heard his soprano playing. Wow. Oh, man, when I see him I’m going to tell him I loved this. So that’s Yosvany’s piece? I’m going to have to check this out some more.

7. Bernard Herrmann
“Theme From Taxi Driver” (Taxi Driver: Original Soundtrack Recording, Arista). Tom Scott, alto saxophone; Uan Rasey, trumpet; unidentified orchestra. Released in 1976.

BEFORE: That’s a beautiful alto sound. The first thing that came to mind was Benny Carter. It’s a beautiful piece and the composition sounds like Benny. The trumpet was ear-bending. It sounds like a movie soundtrack. It has that film-noir kind of vibe, like a Mickey Spillane detective story. I enjoyed it. I love that kind of alto playing.

AFTER: That’s Tom Scott? Whoa. I would have never guessed that in a million years. This gives me another dimension to Tom Scott. I knew of him from the L.A. Express and Joni Mitchell. He was front and center in the ’70s and did [the soundtracks to] those television shows, like Baretta. I love Baretta and I was digging that stuff back then, but I had no idea he could play like this. Quite impressive.


8. Flute Force 4

“T.B.A.” (Flutistry, Black Saint). Pedro Eustache, Melecio Magdaluyo, James Newton, Henry Threadgill, flutes. Recorded in 1990.

BEFORE: Whoever is playing bass flute is doing some heavy lifting. That’s hard. I like the piece. What strikes me is at least two of those players are probably saxophonists who double. It’s something in their articulation and attack. That’s not a negative thing, it just gives it a more percussive feel. Compositionally, it feels like they’re kind of loose with it, more organic. It could have been more exciting with some dynamics, but I like the piece. That’s a lot, playing flute like that over five, six minutes, so I give a lot of credit for keeping up the intensity for that long. Occasionally I get together with some friends and we play flute duos and trios, and it’s a lot of fun. But you have to do it for a long time to build up the sound and the strength.

AFTER: Threadgill? I like that. James Newton, yeah. I haven’t been hip to this record. I want to check this out. I like it. Nice vibe on it. A flute quartet has the potential to be really corny, and it’s not a heavy texture. So the writing has to be good or the playing has to be intriguing.

Who do you think are the exceptional flutists in jazz today?


Hubert [Laws], still. I saw him with Chick [Corea] not long ago. He’s still got it. There’s a young player named Elena Pinderhughes; her sound is really amazing. She’s been playing with Christian Scott. She sounds great. I’ve been hearing a lot about Nicole Mitchell.

What do you think of your own flute playing?

A work in progress [laughs]. I’ve been working on it more lately, with Maria [Schneider], and I just recorded with Chick and he had me playing a lot of flute. I love playing flute. I don’t play it much with my own band because I haven’t written music for it, but I’ll probably start playing it more now.


9. Heads of State
“Sippin’ at Bells” (Four in One, Smoke Sessions). Gary Bartz, alto saxophone; Larry Willis, piano; David Williams, bass; Al Foster, drums. Recorded in 2016.

BEFORE: “Sippin’ at Bells.” Bartz? Yeah, I know Bartz’s sound very well. He’s one of my favorites. He’s a storyteller, a musical griot. Back in the ’90s, James Williams had a week at the Blue Note and he put together a saxophone group with me, Bartz, Chris Potter and Eric Alexander. Needless to say, Eric and Chris—whew! They can do anything on the saxophone—just unbelievable. But Bartz would generally take the last solo, and no matter what any of us had played, he would come in and, with one note, wipe the slate clean. You were just pulled in. He’s telling a story. I used to see him a lot at Bradley’s, and I’ve been a fan of his for a long time.

He does a lot of sets where he just segues from one tune to another and you’re just captivated from when he starts until he’s done. He takes you on a journey, and all of his solos are like that; he has a lyrical way of playing that’s also spiritual and soulful and melodic—everything has a purpose. There’s a sincerity and a depth there, and you don’t think about how much he knows about the saxophone. He just has a sound, his personal sound. And the reason he’s important for me [is that] his musical vision has validated my own. I first became aware of Bartz when I was a teenager, listening to those Blue Note records with Donald Byrd and the Mizell Brothers stuff. I’d come home from school and listen to it and I’d always hear the saxophone solo and ask, “Who is that?” And finally a friend gave me his record Love Affair, on Capitol, and that totally changed my world. His version of “Giant Steps,” which I still think is one of the most perfect solos ever recorded, I still have the transcription I made of it in ’77 or ’78. From beginning to end, you couldn’t compose a better solo than that.

Have you ever told him that?


Oh yeah, many times. Too many people dismissed it at the time, because it was done to a samba beat and it wasn’t the Coltrane version. But over the years, a lot of saxophonists have come to appreciate that solo. I have some of my students working on it. He’s all-inclusive; he doesn’t separate, like, “Now I’m going to play funk,” or “Now I’m gonna play straight-ahead.” You listen to NTU Troop, it’s all there. It’s all part of the same continuum. That’s his philosophy, not just musically but culturally. So for me he’s been a really important voice.

10. Miguel Zenón
“Corteza” (Típico, Miel). Zenón, alto saxophone; Luis Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass; Henry Cole, drums. Recorded in 2016.

BEFORE: [chuckles at ending] Great composition, great structure. Not too long. They could have gone longer but they said what they needed to say. The rhythms were difficult and intriguing but they didn’t overdo it. Keeps you engaged and it sounds purposeful. I love the solos; they take you somewhere. They’re agitating but it’s not forced. It gets right on the edge at times, but that’s cool. I love the piano solo; the saxophone solo is great too. Sounds like Jaleel, but I’m not sure. Usually I can tell the age of someone from their sound, and this band sounds like they’re all under 40 years old, or somewhere close. It shows up in the phrasing of the lines, the grace notes, some of the rhythms. It’s all under control. I really dig it.


AFTER: Miguel. That’s easier than some of the stuff he writes. One of my students plays in his big band and showed me the charts. I said, “If you ever need a sub, don’t call me [laughs].” I met him when he was a master’s student at Manhattan School. He’s a great musician. He can do the traditional stuff and he can play in a big band. Amazing musician.

11. Phil Woods
“Medley 4” (The Solo Album: Phil Woods in Italy 2000, Philology). Woods, alto saxophone. Recorded in 2000.

BEFORE: [immediately] Phil. Ain’t gonna get any better than that. Phil Woods—we miss him. I got to play with him a couple of times in his last years, and obviously what he had to deal with physically, with the emphysema and all that … but still it was all there. He’s just the quintessential alto player. Bill Charlap does the 92nd Street Y [“Jazz in July”] series in New York, and [in 2011] he did a saxophone night and we did something for Benny Carter. So we were playing the charts from Further Definitions, and I was playing the second alto, next to Phil. Toward the end of the concert Phil’s sound was huge. I mean, he was struggling with emphysema and he’s in his ’70s, but he was playing so loud I couldn’t hear myself. Think about that.


At the end of the concert I had this pain in my back, and it just locked up and I could barely get into a taxi. When I got home, I realized I had overexerted myself trying to keep up with Phil Woods. The last time I saw Phil I told him that story about throwing my back out, and I told him I will consider it my rite of passage. The honor of playing beside him after being a lifelong admirer was priceless. He was no-nonsense—he just got right to the heart of the matter. And you know his personality; he didn’t suffer fools, being from that golden era and taking care of business on the bandstand. Unfortunately, that era is gone now for young musicians. They don’t have those opportunities to do those apprenticeships and learn from the masters. As great as Phil was, he always spoke with such humility about Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter and those guys. He never let you forget where he came from. I just loved the way he played. There was no wasted motion. He had this exuberance—could do any song, any key, and he loved making music on the bandstand. From a professional standpoint, he was what we all want to be.

Can you teach that?

You can’t teach it. You can relay the information. You can point them in the right direction. But Phil often joked about jazz education. He’d say, “Here’s what we should do: Put all these guys on a bus, have them play a gig from 7 p.m. until midnight, put them back on the bus and ride them around for 10 hours, and then see if they still want to do it night after night.”


He also knew that this is an oral tradition and you learn it on the bandstand. You have to learn the tunes, who the great players are and go to the source. … There’s nothing that replaces being on the bandstand with Frank Wess and Jimmy Heath and Phil Woods. You learn the etiquette, the culture, the history. And you learn about not taking yourself so seriously, that this music was and still is a folk music.

Originally Published