Drummer Matt Wilson has been active with tenor great Dewey Redman for some time; Smile
is the latest installment from his own inventive quartet. The very title, not to mention the close-up of Wilson’s grinning mug on the cover, suggests that this group likes to have fun. Andrew D’Angelo is on alto sax and bass clarinet, Joel Frahm is on tenor and soprano, and Yosuke Inoue handles bass duties, both acoustic and electric.
Wilson travels mainly in avant-garde circles, and that vocabulary is well represented on Smile
. The two-horn lineup and the absence of a chordal instrument makes for a spare, harmonically open sound. "Wooden Eye," the opener, begins with chaotic rumbling and squawking tenor, but quickly settles into a slowly swinging, bluesy melody that’s vaguely reminiscent of Mingus and early Ornette. The chaos returns, then the slow swing returns, then the chaos again, and so on, with Frahm weaving his tenor solo effortlessly through the stop-start structure.
A number of non-original tunes make their appearance: Monk’s "Boo Boo’s Birthday," Coltrane’s "Grand Central," the well-worn chestnut "Strangers in the Night," and the standard "I’ve Found a New Baby." Each vehicle makes perfect sense in terms of the vision and sound of the group. The Monk tune is played with a kind of calm finesse, the two horns harmonizing tightly on the melody and D’Angelo turning in a crisp, bopping alto solo. "Grand Central" is a solid up-tempo romp; "Strangers" works well as a straight-faced, rubato bass clarinet feature; and "Baby" closes the disc in full camp mode, with a dixieland, tuba-style bass line stressing one and three and Wilson rat-a-tat-tatting away on the rims. It’ll make you smile.
The original compositions run the gamut, from the abstract, foggy-harbor atmosphere of "A Dusting of Snow" and the balladic sweetness of "Daymaker (for Audrey)" to the full-throttle avant assault of "Go Team Go!" Frahm peppers his improv with "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" as well as the "charge!" theme we all know from the baseball stadium; D’Angelo screams, whistles, and waxes Dolphy-esque on the alto. "Cinderblock Shelter" is a slow yet tense-sounding piece, with ominous, almost plodding hits by bass and drums on one and three and a horn melody weaving in and out. "Big Butt," written by D’Angelo, is a funk groove with an angular eighth-note melody played by bass clarinet and bass in unison, joined by alto sax on the second chorus. Toward the end, during a full rest, all the band members shout "Big Butt!" and the music quickly resumes. It’ll make you smile.
D’Angelo contributes another funny tune (maybe he’s
the real joker of the group) called "Making Babies": a dual-horn shout with a fast latin-tinged beat transitioning to a slow swing not unlike "Wooden Eye." The band’s vocal capacities are then drafted into service again: this time, they all shout the numbers one through six, with each number separated by six unison hits. D’Angelo then solos furiously over a fast swing tempo and the numbers one through six return to wind things up. The piece ends with the group shouting "Six!" It’ll make you smile. Buy it.