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Matt Wilson’s Big Happy Family: Beginning of a Memory

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The jazz funeral is a time-honored tradition, but it’s seldom been more exultant or moving than on Matt Wilson’s Beginning of a Memory. The drummer’s first album as leader since the death of his wife, Felicia, in 2014, this recording unites Wilson’s Arts & Crafts and Christmas Tree-O ensembles, as well as his eponymous quartet. The sounds they create together are boisterous, fervent and frequently overwhelming.

Each musician brings massive chops and full emotional engagement. Cornet player Kirk Knuffke and trumpeter Terell Stafford growl through the loping drag of “Lester,” and their furious commitment is matched by Jeff Lederer and Joel Frahm’s brawling soprano saxophones on “Searchlight.” Wilson’s ticking beat backs acoustic bassists Martin Wind and Paul Sikivie, with Chris Lightcap playing electric, on the moody “Feel the Sway,” and alto saxophonist Andrew D’Angelo’s sharp-toned intro kicks the aptly named “Andrew’s Ditty” into high gear. Pianist Larry Goldings offers the nostalgia-kissed solo “How Ya Goin’?,” and “Go Team Go! (Endless Love)” features bassist Yosuke Inoue’s disarmingly effective take on the titular pop-schmaltz ballad.

Wilson’s work never falters, whether guiding the classic-style cooker “No Outerwear” or walloping out nasty rock beats on “Schoolboy Thug.” The camaraderie is palpable in both the laugh-filled studio-chatter snippets and in the clamorous ensemble statements that somehow never degenerate into mere noise.

Still, Beginning of a Memory is most effective when the full weight of the occasion comes to bear. Lederer’s clarinet and the dobro of Matt Balitsaris (who co-produced with Wilson) lend “Flowers for Felicia” a gentle yearning, and the title track is a flat-out heartbreaker: D’Angelo, Stafford and Gary Versace, on accordion, wail out a paean to life that may have you smiling and weeping all at once. This whole album is likely to have that effect. It is, simply put, one hell of a tribute.

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Originally Published