The Matt Wilson Quartet prides itself on variety: the band can play ersatz Indian music, free jazz, and funky rhythm and blues, as well as an occasional touching ballad.
By Michael Ullman
I talked to drummer Matt Wilson almost a decade ago, when he was playing with saxophonist Lee Konitz and bassist Gary Peacock. He spoke of the joy of following the veteran Konitz’s flow of melody, and of the care with which some members of that generation…he mentioned Dewey Redman as well…played even a single note. We heard something of that care in the midst of a sometimes boisterous set Wednesday night at Sculler’s, especially when Wilson was soloing. He was celebrating the group’s new cd, Gathering Call (Palmetto 2169), and they opened with the fanfare of the title cut, whose minimal theme alternates staccato statements by the horns — cornetist Kirk Knuffke and saxophonist Jeff Lederer — with solo spots by Wilson. The extended drum solo that followed could almost have been sung: based on a recurrent figure on the tom toms that was embellished with snapping phrases on the snares. When he is in this mood, Wilson is the most melodic drummer since Max Roach and Ed Blackwell.
In recent interviews, Wilson been stressing that jazz should be fun, which is a reassuring, if not a novel, idea. His idea of fun involves variety. This band can play ersatz Indian music, free jazz, and funky rhythm and blues, as well as an occasion a touching ballad. Wilson’s horns, especially Lederer, unpredictably leap into free playing, serving up the squawks and honks that unite experimentalism and rhythm and blues. There’s a scrambling two section piece Wilson calls “Some Assembly Required,” with its intense, rambling themes and, both live and on disc, a jumpy, energized two-handed solo by the quartet guest star, John Medeski. In contrast, a highlight of both the live and recorded sets was the Beyonce hit “If I Were a Boy,” played with an unadorned, Shaker-like simplicity by cornetist Kirk Knuffke. (If Beyonce were a boy, there’d be a lot less scrambling for front row seats at her concerts.)
The band played the Ellington blues ditty, “You Dirty Dog,” which the composer wrote for his collaboration with Coleman Hawkins, as well as Matt Wilson’s own, beautifully placid “Dancing Waters,” which features a lush-toned solo by bassist Chris Lightcap. One notable tune, or perhaps more accurately scale, “Raga,” came from an earlier disc, Humidity. It began with everyone (but Medeski) on handbells. Then Wilson pounded out a complex rhythm with a stick on a hand drum. The band is usually a quartet, but every time John Medeski soloed he further energized the group; he gave the most rousing, virtuosic and funky solo on Ellington’s blues “Main Stem,” with which the band chose to finish. Wilson and company invited a couple of young student saxophonists on stage to jam, and the evening ended with a party-like flourish, as substantial in content as it was exhilarating.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.