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Matt Wilson: Utility Player

Matt Wilson (photo: Jimmy Katz)
Matt Wilson (photo: Jimmy Katz)

Drummer Matt Wilson’s musical sensibility lies somewhere between the country and the city, the sublime and the superfluous, the avant-garde and the mainstream. Since he broke through in 1996, the jazz and mainstream media have been effusive in their praise for Wilson’s home-style music, which brings together a wide range of influences, from country-western songwriter Roger Miller to Ornette Coleman.

Trusted sideman of Dewey Redman, Lee Konitz and Cecil McBee, and veteran of countless early tours with Boston’s Either/Orchestra, Wilson earned a reputation for good humor and excellence on the bandstand that culminated in his being voted Best New Artist for 1997 by the New York Jazz Critics Circle.

Influenced primarily by the pioneering free-jazz drummers Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell, he also strongly admires Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, Joey Baron, Tom Rainey and Brian Blade. Wilson’s latest CD, 1999’s Smile (Palmetto), like its predecessors, 1996’s As Wave Follows Wave and 1998’s Going Once, Going Twice, is a mild blend of inside and outside influences, spiked with the dash of country flavor that has become his trademark. Like his friend and fellow Knitting Factory denizen, trumpeter Dave Douglas, Wilson deals with music that is intellectual and accessible, funny and serious, risky and safe. Amiably, confidently, Wilson strides down the middle of the road that separates mainstream and avant-garde jazz, a road that may have been war-torn in the past, but now seems positively serene.

“The only wrong thing in music is not to be yourself, in whatever situation you’re in,” says Wilson. “I think that in print, people will think this or that. But when it comes down to music, musicians, I think-but I’m really a very optimistic person-are generally very supportive and interested in what other people are doing, even if it differs from what they do.”

Matthew E. Wilson was born September 27, 1964, in the small town of Knoxville, Ill. His father was a deliveryman and farmer; his mother, a housewife. Inspired by Buddy Rich’s guest appearance on an episode of I Love Lucy, Wilson began playing the drums in grade school, and by eighth grade was performing with local bands. An older brother, who now works in the theater designing scenery, played tenor sax, and the two often practiced together.

Neither Knoxville nor nearby Galesburg-a metropolis of 32,000 people-could qualify as a jazz mecca, but Wilson and his early musical cohorts did the best they could, routinely driving hundreds of miles in a week to see musicians such as Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson play in neighboring towns. Gillespie, in particular, made a lasting impression:

“When I saw Dizzy,” Wilson explains, “I saw, live, how powerful this person was.” He felt a similar feeling the first time he saw Elvin Jones play, at the Village Vanguard in 1984, when Wilson, having successfully obtained a Jazz Apprenticeship grant from the N.E.A., came to New York City for the first time, briefly, to study with Ed Soph.

Wilson attended Wichita State University, in Kansas, where Dr. J.C. Combs instructed him in music as well as musical tomfoolery. Part of Wilson’s formula for success has been not to shy away from humor in music. He has been known to request the participation of his audience, asking that they make sounds or say lines at certain places in the music. And he has even pulled such eyebrow-raising gags as playing the drums with two carrots, then devouring the carrots for a finale.

Wilson recalls two concerts that Combs organized at Wichita State, which he says had an influence on him. One centered on the “playing” of musical pinball machines; the other put professional wrestlers in the role of musicians.

After obtaining his B.M. in 1986, Wilson moved to Boston, where he worked with keyboardist John Medeski and vocalist Dominique Eade and met Charlie Kohlhase, baritone saxophonist and one of the creative minds behind the Either/Orchestra. Wilson credits the Either/Orchestra, which he was member of from 1987 to 1992, with helping to reestablish the Midwest as fertile ground for touring jazz groups: “It was the band just going out there and doing it,” he says. “I know that’s what inspired Medeski, Martin & Wood to go do the same thing-just take it to the people.”

Today, Wilson continues to travel frequently to the Midwest to play in Galesburg and other small towns. “What’s wild about Galesburg is that there are three nights of jazz in that town,” he says, proudly. “I mean, imagine if there were three nights of jazz in every town of 32,000 people in the United States. That whole zone, between Galesburg, Rock Island, Iowa City and Des Moines is sort of a scene.” For years, he has been making these travels, often in the company of alto saxophonist and bass clarinetist Andrew D’Angelo, an Either/Orchestra alumnus and founding member of Wilson’s successful working quartet.

Moving with his wife, Felicia, a teacher and musician, to New York in 1992, Wilson found work with pianists Joanne Brackeen and Fred Hersch, and saxophonists Sam Newsome, Marty Ehrlich and Thomas Chapin. In 1996, the same year he recorded the album Strings for Holiday with alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, Wilson made his stunning debut as a leader with As Wave Follows Wave. A panorama of simple melodies laid against open-sky grooves, the CD elicited a great, understated performance from Dewey Redman and the kind of accompaniment from Larry Goldings that has made him a top jazz keyboardist and an invaluable studio ace. McBee adds the right amount of funk to Wilson’s loping swing. The following year, Wilson appeared on McBee’s long-overdue debut as a leader, the exuberant Unspoken.

Wilson had been playing with Redman for some months prior to making As Wave Follows Wave. “Matthew called me constantly for almost a year, telling me that he was available. I had never heard of the guy,” Redman told writer Ken Micallef in 1999. Wilson’s persistence eventually paid off and he was hired, unheard, for a gig in Toronto, and has been with Redman’s quartet ever since. Redman has called Wilson “a great talent” and said he “swings his ass off.” Indubitably, Wilson’s association with Redman has been one of the most important of his career to date.

“He has a gift, and this is something a great bandleader can do: make you sound really good and make you play your best,” says Wilson of his mentor. “He has such a great sound that it makes you want to have a great sound. That’s why I cherish those experiences, every time. He’s just an incredibly caring person. Everything is for the music, with him.”

While neither Smile nor Going Once, Going Twice quite equals the impact of Wilson’s debut (the stabs at musical humor get a little hokey), nevertheless the releases have allowed Wilson’s quartet to stay on the road and amass a decent following both at home and in Europe. “There’s a real big interest in the music,” he enthuses. “Those kids out there are totally up on what I’m doing and what other people are doing.” In addition to Wilson and D’Angelo, the quartet features bassist Yosuke Inoue (“he’s just complete,” Wilson says, “one of the greatest musicians around”) and tenor saxophonist Jeff Lederer. Lederer replaced Joel Frahm, who left subsequent to a falling-out with Wilson in late 1999.

On a recent sideman gig at the Knitting Factory with bassist-composer Mario Pavone, in a group featuring trombonist Art Baron, Wilson seemed never to be at rest, constantly searching for sounds or patterns in the air. He used sticks, mallets and hands, and played the shells and hardware of his drum kit as well as the drums and cymbals. He likes the tom-toms; his are tuned high just like his hero’s, Ed Blackwell. At one point, he pulled a long chain out of his pocket and dangled it on the cymbal, at another point, a bell that he struck and swung on a cord.

Wilson says of his friend, the late alto saxophonist Thomas Chapin, “He was a real inspiration. He got things done, and I like people who get things done. He had his foot in the door of the next level of acceptance, in a lot of ways.” Musicians like Chapin and Dave Douglas, according to Wilson, “are the ones that, the more acceptance they get, the more they’re going to push it.” And Wilson certainly has eyes to push his next project, a recording quartet with pianist Larry Goldings, bassist Dennis Irwin and trumpeter Terrell Stafford.

“It’s fun to play for people who don’t know what the music is,” says Wilson, who has a two-year-old daughter, Audrey. “My influences as far as writing a lot have been people that I really feel come from a basis of hope, like Don Cherry. And Dewey, I’ve learned a lot from Dewey’s writing-and Albert Ayler. This new record that I’m doing-I wanted to put myself in a situation to write, to see what I could do with sort of a mainstream setting. I’m trying to push the envelope the other way, too, slightly, so there will be some fringes on either side.”

Fringes, maybe, but hopefully not too much corn.

Listening Pleasures

Masada: Live at Millheim (Tzadik)

Best of Muddy Waters (Chess)

Ray Charles: Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music (Rhino)

Cannonball Adderley: Cannonball in Japan (Fantasy)

Myra Melford, Joseph Jarman, Leroy Jenkins: Equal Interest (OmniTone)

Recommended CDs Featuring Matt Wilson

Charlie Kohlhase Quintet: Good Deeds (Accurate)

Dewey Redman: Live in London (Palmetto)

Mary LaRose: Walking Woman (GM)

Vic Juris: Pastels (SteepleChase)

Lee Konitz: Strings for Holiday (Enja)

MOB Trio: Loose (OmniTone)


Wilson plays Pearl Master custom drums: an 18-inch bass, 5- by 14-inch metal snare, 8- by 12-inch tom, 14- by 14-inch floor tom, with a 10-inch snare as the second rack tom.

His cymbals are Zildjians: 20-inch Constantinople ride or “A” Custom flat ride, or 18-inch Breakbeat ride, depending on the gig; also 12-inch “A” thin high hats. “I usually just use two cymbals,” he says, “the most, three.” The third may be a splash, crash or China. He also has an assortment of old “K” Zildjians that are used mainly for recording or playing in New York.

Wilson uses Zildjian sticks (John Riley model) and brushes. He prefers Remo heads. “I also have a bunch of percussion toys I have collected or borrow from my daughter,” he says. “My extensive electronics setup consists of a Univox drum box, circa 1970. Pete McCann, the great guitarist, found it in the trash and thought of me.” Originally Published