With its trio format, it's also one of the clearest, most direct ways to tune in to Wilson's subtle, swinging wit and high rhythmic artistry. It's also a fine Christmas gift for anyone who knows that drums, contrary to their sometimes negative image, can, in the right hands like Wilson's, be one of the most expressive of instruments.
But how does Wilson, who's been called the greatest drummer of his generation, drum up real Christmas spirit in a studio on a hot, steamy, late spring day, months and mercury readings far removed from the wintry holiday?
"To get a Christmas vibe, we brought a Christmas tree into the studio. We had Christmas lights up and wore sweaters, and had a nice holiday meal afterwards," says Wilson, a master of tongue-in-cheek humor, explaining the high-wattage Christmas feeling that illuminates his electrifying album, "Matt Wilson's Christmas Tree-O" (Palmetto Records).
Wilson leads his joyful and triumphant trio in "Christmas Tree-O: A Holiday Concert" Saturday at 3 p.m. at St. Andrew's Church in Kent.
Wilson, the first artist-in-residence at the Litchfield Jazz Festival — presenter of the Kent Christmas concert — performs with his Tree-O mates, Jeff Lederer, an impressive one-man reed band, and Paul Sikivie, a young, gifted bassist.
What makes the album distinctive is that it works both as a great jazz album, decked out in Coltrane-like verve and fervor, and also as a celebratory Christmas disc packed with rejuvenated chestnuts like "Little Drummer Boy" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas." It ranges from the sizzling spirituality of Albert Ayler's "Angels" melded with the traditional carol, "Angels We Have Heard on High," to a soulful homage to John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)."
You may not have heard of Lederer, who plays everything from tenor saxophone and bass clarinet to piccolo and toy piano, but once you've sampled this disc or heard him play in Kent, you might agree with Wilson that "he's one of the really great but underrated players."
"Christmas Tree-O" is a CD with multiple uses. It can serve as an ideal background as your holiday guests chatter over hors d'oeuvres and drinks. Or you can listen to it closely on your own and savor its cool fire and bracing spirit anytime during the year.
"I feel like it's a really strong jazz statement," Wilson says from New York, while generously bestowing all the kudos to his collaborators. "We recorded it in the studio where the drums, horns and bass were real close together in the room, not divided up into separate cubicles where you tune-in on the music with headphones as you record.
"I think the intimate recording setup gives the album a really classic jazz sound, like those early Riverside recordings. It's almost as if Orrin Keepnews (the legendary jazz producer of innumerable 1950s, early '60s jazz classics) was right in the studio overseeing things. We were playing to the room, to each other and to the instruments rather than to the headphones," Wilson says.
It doesn't have that cherry-picked, cut-and-spliced, inauthentic, slick sound of an ultra-hightech studio session. Spontaneity reigns supreme. Many of the CD's 14 tracks, Wilson stresses, were cut in just one take on a repertoire ranging from "Winter Wonderland" to "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." Like those vintage Keepnews studio classics with Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk or Bill Evans, the music is very much in the moment and all about interaction.
Wilson is what he proudly calls "The Allower," allowing, even encouraging bandmates to explore their own voices, their own strengths. What he gains as The Allower, he says, is an Ellingtonian kind of balance of power in which the leader leads yet allows much freedom to his players, a liberty that, in turn, acts as a catalyst both individually and collectively.
As a soloist, Wilson has few peers. His playing is so melodic that it exudes a singing quality. It's so strong yet subtly shaded and thematically developed that it has a beautiful linear feel while seeming to imply chord changes as well.
Wilson heard that melodic quality in such drum masters as Max Roach, Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell and Roy Haynes, among others. But it also springs from his passion for pure melody that he hears in an open-ended range of singers and songs, not just iconic jazz divas like Sarah Vaughan or Carmen McRae, but also non-jazz pop divas like Doris Day, Judy Garland or, yes, even Eydie Gormé.
"It might surprise some people, but I'm a really big song hound. I love the American songbook so much. A couple days ago I heard Bing Crosby on the radio singing 'Don't Fence Me In.' What a great song, and the way Bing sang it amazed me! "I love the poetry of songs. And that's why doing something like this Christmas album is so much fun for me," he says.
Wilson, the most unideological of jazz musicians, pays absolutely no attention to rigid categories held sacred by some fans andcritics. Free jazz, bebop, pop, ballads, blues, backing singers, music with chords, without chords, modal, far-out, near-in, minimalist maximalist: None of these stylistic boundaries makes a difference to Wilson, for whom good music is good music regardless of genre.
"If somebody is heavy at what they do," Wilson says, "it doesn't really matter what the category is." "I think that's what's really healthy about jazz for the last five or six years is that those distinctions have become really blurred or have melded together. … And I think that's a beautiful thing," he says.
A perennial jazz poll winner, Wilson was born Sept. 27, 1964, in the small prairie town of Knoxville, Ill. The globe-trotting, affable, modest Midwesterner — a friendly, unabashed "people person" — who's based in New York, is a longtime Connecticut favorite who has played with such Nutmeg notables as Mario Pavone, Joel Frahm and Noah Preminger.
He has been "Mr. Versatility" for the LJF, where he has appeared more often than any other musician in the nationally acclaimed festival's 15 year history. His 16 performances at LJF have included stints as either the leader of his own acclaimed groups, The Matt Wilson Quartet and his Arts and Crafts Ensemble, or as a swinging sideman with luminaries including Lee Konitz, Charlie Haden, Dena DeRose and Denny Zeitlin.
He lives in New York with his wife Felicia, a violinist and teacher, and their four children, Audrey, 12, and their triplets, Max, Henry and Ethan, 9. Max's full name is Max Dewey Wilson. Max comes from drumming great Max Roach, one of Wilson's early heroes. Dewey comes from the free-wheeling saxophonist Dewey Redman, one of Wilson's early key mentors and great friend. An Allower in-his-own-right, Redman helped send his then-young drummer protege down his own diverse, adventurous path.
CHRISTMAS TREE-O: A HOLIDAY CONCERT is Saturday at 3 p.m. at St. Andrew's Church, 1 North Main St., Kent. Reception to follow at the Ober Gallery in the Village Barn Shops, 14 Old Barn Road, Kent. $15. Reserved concert seating and reception, $40. Tickets are available by phone, on-line and at the door. Call 860-361-6285, or visit www.litchfieldjazzfest.com or e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.
December 05, 2010
By Owen McNally, Special to The Courant, The Hartford Courant