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Matt Wilson: Beyond Category


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I'm really drawn to any kind of folk music; I mean, I think jazz is folk music basically. I think anything that is real simple and says something without a lot of hoopla gets me so I really consider Ornette [Coleman's] music to be folk music.
—Matt Wilson
The world thrives on order and the type of categorization that is as much a part of everyday life as breathing. Single or married, democrat or republican, each one of us can be pigeonholed into general and then more specific categories. Music is certainly no different, as anyone can tell you if they've found themselves in a store struggling to locate a disc of percussive beats from the Ghanawan musicians of Africa or of the klezmer strains of Mickey Katz. The antithesis of this kind of activity, jazz drummer Matt Wilson- and one even hesitates to call him just a jazz drummer- has established himself not only through sheer talent, but through a natural tendency to see music as one continuous cloth of various shades and hues.

Now on tour in support of his new Palmetto release, Humidity, Wilson agreed to sit down for an extended chat with All About Jazz that touched on many different areas involving life and music.

All About Jazz: So, here's the most obvious question. How did you get inspired to take up the drums?

Matt Wilson: When I was a kid I saw Buddy Rich on TV and then I saw him play a handful of times. But it became something after awhile that I knew I wasn't going to be able to touch. I heard this record with him and Max Roach together and my ears were perked up when I heard Max and so I was really drawn more to that kind of playing. The melodic stuff that he was doing really sung to me.

AAJ: Did it seem like music was going to be it, or did you have other career ideas along the way?

MW: I was always interested in archeology and anthropology and I sort of feel that music allows you to do that because you get to travel and you get to check out people's cultures and that sort of thing. So I still feel that that's an interest of mine.

AAJ: I hear you had a little duo with your brother during your school years.

MW: Yeah, we would buy sheet music a lot and these books, like 'Hit Songs of 1973,' and play out of them and then provide the entertainment for PTA and 4-H meetings and that kind of thing. We would kind of improvise and I did that with a snare drum and a cheap tin cymbal; I didn't actually get a drum set until I was in junior high.

AAJ: Then what happened after you got a drum kit?

MW: I was able to start working kind of early, like I started to work some gigs when I was in junior high. You know, I played weddings and parties and stuff and that was pretty cool.

AAJ: Can you tell us about when things really started to click with you in terms of what you were learning from teachers and in college?

MW: Well, I got a national endowment grant in 1984 to study with Ed Soph and I came to the east coast and with him I really felt like I learned how to learn. You know, to learn to deal with the instrument. In other words, I didn't need somebody telling me what to do all the time; I realized I could figure out what I need to work on. He's a really great teacher in that way.

AAJ: Do you still practice now a lot?

MW: I just work on playing time basically. I mean, that to me is still what gets me the most excited when I hear stuff back; just making stuff feel real good.

AAJ: You have a tune on your new record, Humidity, called 'Thank You Billy Higgins.' Tell us about the inspiration for writing that piece.

MW: I heard Billy Higgins for the first time in 1984 and that was life changing for me. I mean I made a real connection with that kind of playing.

AAJ: So how does it feel to come all this way and play with the caliber of musicians who you work with on a regular basis?

MW: When you're a kid, you come to New York and you go to the [Village] Vanguard and you see music and you're thinking, 'Man, if I could play here some day.' And now I do and I'm very grateful that I get to do this kind of stuff and I don't take it for granted. I played on a television show with the great singer Paula West and Mulgrew Miller and it was just so exciting to look over and to see Mulgrew over there. I mean it was so great playing with someone I've always wanted to play with. Anytime I'd get another chance to play with him I'm there.

AAJ: How do you approach playing with such a diverse set of leaders like you do at any given time?

MW: I played at the National Cathedral with Eugene Friesen playing cello and poet Coleman Barks reading Rumi poetry and then I play with [singer/pianist] Dena DeRose and then my band does its thing and so I see it all as one big thing. You're basically all there to discover that same thing, that magic that's there when you play music together, whether it's with a Rumi poet or with a singer or whatever.

AAJ: Do you think that the fact that you play in so many different arenas might make it hard for listeners to really pin you down stylistically?

MW: People sometimes listen with their eyes. I mean, they'll see 'singer doing American songbook' or they'll see 'free jazz' and they'll immediately shut off their ears without actually experiencing it first to see if it sounds in them or not. But, I think people are becoming a little bit more honest listeners, I mean look at the Grammies and Norah Jones. People heard it and it sounded in them. People have a chance to check things out and maybe they can be drawn to stuff that they're really drawn to rather than drawn to what they feel they have to be drawn to. I have hopes for that.

AAJ: So what have you been listening to these days?

MW: One of the most powerful things I've purchased in a long time is this new Johnny Cash record called The Man Comes Around. I'm really drawn to any kind of folk music; I mean, I think jazz is folk music basically. I think anything that is real simple and says something without a lot of hoopla gets me so I really consider Ornette [Coleman's] music to be folk music. I heard it a listening station when I was in Boston with Lee Konitz and we went shopping for records. What is funny to me is it parallels Lee in a lot of ways. I mean here is Johnny Cash singing these very familiar songs in a no-frills way is like hearing Lee play standards.

I like production music and I've really got into these Missy Elliot records. I'm sort of intrigued by the humor in those records. Eminem for me becomes a little dark and I'm not really into that dark hip-hop vibe, but with the other stuff I like the humor relief and I love the beats and the production. I like Prince and I listen to his music quite a lot and then I buy a lot of old rock and roll records that I listened to as a kid that make me feel good. Like I bought a Cheap Trick greatest hits record and I've kind of been digging listening to that. And then I been listening to Cannonball [Adderley] records and Miles, Erroll Garner, Stan Kenton, and little things that I want to learn more about. I also try to buy stuff when I'm traveling. I mean, I came home from Brazil last year with about 15 or 20 CDs of folkloric music.

AAJ: Tell us about your work with the quartet and how you approach writing for that band.

MW: I approach it by having us play the material and then seeing what happens. And that's the great thing about having a band. I've felt like I've made some mistakes on some earlier records. I feel like the more that I make records now the more that I don't really think about what I'm going to do for them. I kind of have an idea of the tunes, but you don't really know how it's going to be until you start to put it together. It's like a novel and the best things happen when it unfolds. If there are mistakes I leave them and I do as little amount of editing as possible. I'm really proud of this record and I think it really says something about where we are at this point in time.

AAJ: So what's next for you in terms of recording projects?

MW: My next record that I'm gearing up for is my music that I've written to Carl Sandburg poetry, but I really want to do a record with a singer playing guitar and not a jazz person necessarily, but a folk type player with an improvisational spirit. I'd love to have Pete Seeger, or Johnny Cash, or Willie Nelson sing one of my songs.

AAJ: You know, before we wrap things up, I have to ask how you manage all that you do with a wife and four kids?

MW: It's a miracle. But first of all, I get to work with a lot of great people and they're pretty sympathetic to my situation. But I keep busy; I do jingles and I do records and part of the reason I do a lot of different things is because I love to do them, but then I really have to do them. I'm pretty happy when I'm playing music no matter what it is. I'm lucky in that I'm around great people pretty much about 100% of the time and I get that kind of communal spirit. I'm looking for everybody being in the game.

AAJ: What's the downside of it all?

MW: I don't have a lot of free time, like going to the movies with my wife.

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1999 AAJ Interview

Photo Credit
Chris Hovan

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