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Artist Profiles

Matt Wilson: Connecting with the People

By Published: February 10, 2005

I find that when people really get to experience it, [theyre able to connect with it]. Thats why playing live is so important...

Two sticks beat incessantly on a snare and a tom while a third rests snuggly in Matt Wilson's armpit. Poised on his steed of a stool, arched foot tapping methodically on the high-hat pedal, the bespectacled, mock turtleneck wearing, just-turned-forty-year-old resembles a Revolutionary War hero. In reality he's a New York jazz musician on stage at Sweet Rhythm with pianist Frank Kimbraugh and bassist Ben Allison, having so much fun that after each tune he lets out a full-throttled guffaw.

Wake Up! (To What's Happening) , the new album with his band Matt Wilson's Arts & Crafts brims with a similar jubilance. Flashy flugelhorn rambles by Terell Stafford interject Larry Golding's glorious escapades on the organ, while Wilson and bassist Dennis Irwin fill it all in with rhythmic whimsy.

His sense of humor is evident in everything he plays,"? said Allison about his long-time collaborator. "He's got a real light-hearted spirit. It's what the audience responds to when they listen to him."?

Audiences of all ages seem too dig Wilson. His daughter Audrey a budding violinist like her mom, is almost seven, and his triplet boys, Max, Henry and Ethan, all major Hilary Duff fans, are three and a half. "I think they understand what's going on,"? he explained between bites of a tuna fish sandwich, "They know we're up there sort of in the sandbox like they are. My daughter especially who has been around it a lot, sees that playfulness of the music and understands that there's some sort of connectivity."?

Wilson's father-in-law came along for the recording session where vocalist Curtis Stiger laid down the tracks for "There Comes A Time"?, a breezy take on Tony Williams' 1970s love song. "He found it to be totally fascinating,"? explained Wilson. "Here's to me the strangest thing on this record, and that's the thing that he loves, because he was there. I find that when people really get to experience it, [they're able to connect with it]. That's why playing live is so important, getting out and playing for these people in all these different places is really important."?

As a teenager growing up in the prairie lands of Illinois, Wilson drove many miles to see music. One week the young jazz aficionado and a devoted pal traveled to three separate towns where they saw individually, Clark Terry, Dizzie Gillespie and Oscar Peterson. Now as an established player himself, with two active bands (Arts & Crafts and the Matt Wilson Quartet), plus a long list of side-man gigs, Wilson hits the road constantly and the experiences keep getting better.

While in college at Wichita State University the drummer and all his bassist pals listened to Buster Williams, and played Sphere arrangements all the time. "I remember the first time I played with Buster. It was at the San Francisco Jazz Festival,"? he explained. "I saw my hand playing the ride cymbal and there's Buster Williams standing there, I was like 'wow this is great.'"?

Last summer, before setting out on tour with the Liberation Music Orchestra, the drummer played with Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden at the Montreal Jazz Festival. "When I wasn't playing, I laid out, which is a great thing to do and hear those guys. I actually sort of pinched myself,"? he recalled.

Glancing at his jammed schedule Wilson gets excited. "I look at all these things I'm doing between now and May, and I'm ecstatic about each one of them,"? he said. "I just can't wait to play here, or I can't wait to do the gigs with Dena, and I can't wait to do this stuff with Ted Nash's Odeon band, and tonight with Frank [Kimbrough] at Sweet Rhythm, and stuff with Bill [Frissell], there are all these things, there's nothing I look at and say 'oh what a drag, I have to go and play...' it's all cool and everybody is so inviting in that sort of way, and boundaryless."

That sense of openness is pivotal for Wilson. As a leader he tries to orchestrate an easy facility among band mates. "Dewey [Redman] gave me some advice. He said 'people play the best when they play with me'. I was like 'wow that's kind of a statement'. But what he was saying was that he allows people. And that's what I want to be. I want people to have fun and I want them to be able to play how they want to play. I don't want to control them. So it's fun to go out and allow that to happen, sort of be the ringleader of sonic fun."

According to Goldings, Wilson does a pretty good job. "It always becomes a special experience playing with Matt because he's very open minded. He plays in such a way that allows me a lot of space to create. I'm attracted to musicians who carve out their own personality."?

At a drum symposium, the summer before his senior year of high school, Wilson met the brilliantly innovative pecussionist, composer, and Wichita State professor JC Combs. Compelled by his creative prowess (Combs has used things like wrestlers, cloggers, and pinball machines in his pieces), Wilson decided to enroll, at the school.

"He really invited a lot of people to be creative," Wilson explained. "It was a wild time. Coming up with some crazy stuff to do." Wilson once performed a ballet by composer Walter Mays, called "War Games." The percussion ensemble included a jackhammer on steel beam and a 357 magnum. The ballerinas were wrestlers, including Bull Dog Bob Brown.

"All this stuff has influenced me in thinking 'you know I can try this'. If you can come up with some sort of way of inviting people in... The other day I listened to this piece I did with a farm auctioneer," he said, referring to xxx from his record Going Once Going Twice. I was thinking 'this is really strange' and 'wow that's pretty cool to get to do'."

Goldings remembered that during his first gig with Wilson, the drummer, while in the midst of a solo, began glancing around. He spotted a wooden chair and dragged it across the stage. "I was sort of chuckling at it but mostly sort of admiring the spontaneity and creativity behind the idea of using a prop for sonic and visual reasons. I thought here's a guy who really goes for it when he performs and I admire that a lot."

An avid teacher, Wilson also uses visuals to help kids understand music. Last year Arts & Crafts brought a program called "Jazz Music Happens Now" to 22 New York City public schools. To show the students the moods in music, and the flexibility of musicians, Wilson created a series of signs. Two students stood on stage. Each held a sign. One, featuring a type of facial expression determined the mood (cheerful, gloomy), while the other called the groove (busy, sparse).

"What I wanted the kids to walk away with was that they knew the music was happening right there in front of them. That it will never be the same ever again," Wilson explained. "So when they go to a jazz concert they're witnessing something special. And they'll cherish that experience along with the musicians." Educating listeners is a big goal for Wilson, but he's also focusing on some simpler achievements, like progressing as an artist, and developing his relationships.

Lee Konitz once confided to Wilson that what he wants to do with the rest of his life is to continue what he has been doing, but do it better. "There you go. There's one of those lessons that you get. That's one of those moments that I stored up there," he said with reverence. "I like keeping these bands working and I like going out and playing for the people as much as possible. If I keep getting experiences like this I'll be satisfied. Just keep going out and trying to reach people and bring some happiness to some folk's lives. I don't think we always know how important it is sometimes as a musician, an artist, how important it is to go out and do this. It's really important to have this human connection and I think this music represents that really well. Just keep getting a chance to keep experience this."

Recommended Listening:

Charlie Kohlhase - Good Deeds (Accurate, 1992)

Matt Wilson - As Wave Follows Wave (Palmetto, 1996)

Mario Pavone/Nu Trio - Remembering Thomas (Knitting Factory, 1999)

Matt Wilson - Smile (Palmetto, 1999)

Lee Konitz/Matt Wilson - Gong with Wind Suite (SteepleChase, 2002)

Matt Wilson - Wake Up! (To What's Happening) (Palmetto, 2004)

Visit Matt Wilson on the web.

Read Matt Wilson CD Reviews at AAJ.

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