Over the past 15 years or so that he has been gigging around New York as a drummer and bandleader, Matt Wilson has never failed to bring an element of surprise and unabashed joy to the bandstand, along with an irrepressible, goofy smile that always conveys to the audience that he is indeed having big-time fun up there on stage. A serious artist with a wacky sense of humor, Wilson respects the jazz tradition and pays sincere homage to its elders. And yet, he is not above placing wind-up toys on his snare or blowing little plastic horns or slide whistles (no doubt borrowed from one of his triplet boys – Henry, Max, Ethan — or his daughter Audrey) when the irreverent mood strikes.
Just back from a tour of Australia, where he played wide open trio gigs in the spirit of Sonny Rollins’ pianoless trio recordings from 1957 (Way Out West, A Night at the Village Vanguard) with bassist John Hebert and tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger, Wilson unveiled an expanded edition of his group comprised of his working quartet (Jeff Lederer on tenor sax and clarinet, Kurt Knuffke on cornet, Chris Lightcap on bass) and augmented by a flexible string quartet featuring his wife Felicia Wilson on violin, Skye Steele on violin, Nicole Federici on viola and Alisa Horn on cello. This inspired marriage of freewheeling jazz and chamber-like precision – Igor Stavinsky meets Ornette Coleman — made for one of the more exhilarating and rewarding performances that I have attended this year. And there were plenty of surprises along the way.
They kicked off their exuberant set with “The Gathering Call,” a sing-songy “Dancing in Your Head” fanfare marked by a repeated motif with some subversive skronking from the strings and a rolling free jazz pulse underneath provided by Wilson. Lightcap is especially adept at this kind of Charlie Haden-esque bass playing, which is full of deconstructionist half-time phrasing against Wilson’s frantic pulse. Lederer blew with gale force on his tenor solo here while Knuffke contributed bright, original ideas with bristling energy and bold conviction. At one point in the whirlwind proceedings, the whole band dropped out as the inventive drummer launched into a dramatic solo, exhibiting masterful stick control and melodic ideas on the kit in the tradition of his drumming heroes Max Roach and Billy Higgins. (At one point he actually quoted from the melody to “Here Comes the Bride,” which elicited all-knowing grins from his wife Felicia).
“Raga,” an East Indian flavored number from Wilson’s 2003 album Humidity, opened with all the members of the quartet playing hand bells to create a gentle, meditative zone. As the zen-like piece progressed, they were joined on stage by the band’s former alto saxophonist Andrew D’Angelo, who began by playing his horn from his seat in the back of the room, then gradually made his way to the stage while continuing to blow on top of the insinuating drone, which was enhanced by Lightcap switching from upright to electric 8-string bass. D’Angelo had been MIA all through 2008 after two operations to remove a malignant brain tumor. Judging by the intensity of his cathartic blowing on this piece, the charismatic and iconoclastic saxophonist is in full recovery now. At the ecstatic peak of his solo, Wilson let out with whoops and shouts of encouragement from his kit. It was a triumphant moment, as purely spontaneous and audacious as the time I witnessed D’Angelo stage-dive with his sax at an IAJE convention during a rendition of Wilson’s edgy “Schoolboy Thug.”
“Lucky” (co-written by Lederer and his daughter Maya) was a beautiful chamber-like piece underscored by Wilson’s relaxed brushwork and featuring Lederer on clarinet. Picture the late, great Ed Thigpen embellishing an Aaron Copland piece. The gentle piece segued to a collective improv interlude with the strings offering spiky commentary. As the piece developed, Wilson stepped from behind his kit to recite the Carl Sandburg poem “Bubbles,” which he dedicated to D’Angelo:
Two bubbles found they had rainbows on their curves
And they flickered out saying, “You know, it was worth being a bubble just to hold that rainbow for 30 seconds.”
Another daring experiment that paid off with stunning results was a mash-up of Mozart’s “Dissonance Quartet” (played by the strings) and Ornette Coleman’s pensive ballad “What Reason Could I Give.” From there, they segued neatly into Ornette’s “Broken Shadows” featuring guest vocalist Mary LaRose. And they closed with Wilson’s quirky little love song, “Getting Friendly.” Each of the four sets that the expanded Matt Wilson ensemble played during their two-night engagement at Iridium was unique. I felt lucky to have caught this inspired second set on Thursday night.