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Matt Wilson: Have Drums, Will Travel

Lawrence Peryer By

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The best way I know how to celebrate something is with music or with a group of musicians. This record was a way of saying thanks to some people: a big thank-you note, in a way, a sonic thank-you note.
Drummer Matt Wilson must surely be in the running for the title of hardest-working man in jazz. Wilson is a composer, bandleader, producer and teacher. As a leader, his projects include the Matt Wilson Quartet, Arts & Crafts, Christmas Tree-O and the Carl Sandburg Project. He has been in bands with luminaries such as Joe Lovano, John Scofield, Charlie Haden, Lee Konitz, Ted Nash and many, many others. As for legends, he's played with Herbie Hancock, Dewey Redman, Andrew Hill, Bobby Hutcherson, Elvis Costello, Cedar Walton, Kenny Barron, John Zorn, Wynton Marsalis, Michael Brecker, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell and Hank Jones. With appearances on over 250 albums as a leader, co-leader or sideman, this list barely scratches the surface.

While all of these credits illustrate what life can be like for a working jazz musician in the 21st Century, a striking aspect of Wilson's resume is his ability to move between scenes. He is comfortable (and, more importantly, welcome) with cats like Wynton Marsalis, often gracing the stage for Jazz at Lincoln Center, and more often than not he can be found downtown in a small club with the likes of Myra Melford, Joan Stiles or Noah Preminger. Regardless of the venue or situation, Wilson brings his knowledge, sensitivity and enthusiasm to the proceedings.

All About Jazz: Where did your light-hearted nature come from?

Matt Wilson: I didn't really know what I was doing for the longest time, in terms of a career in music, so the more fun I had, the better. Well, I knew what I was doing, but I grew up playing music in an area where there was not a lot of jazz. We had to take it where we could get it. With buddies of mine, I went to a lot of concerts and stuff like that. With one buddy in high school, he was 16 and I was 15, we drove 115 miles north one time and saw Clark Terry in Quad Cities. Fifty miles south of Macomb we saw Dizzy Gillespie's band and then drove about 140 miles to Champaign or whatever to see Oscar Peterson solo. That was in one week in 1980.

AAJ: Road trip!

MW: Yeah, it was a road trip. That was our thing. We would go and see the Count Basie Band and stuff like that. But for me, the light-hearted thing—it comes from when I saw people like Dizzy, Clark Terry, Louie Bellson. These guys were honestly really nice guys and seemed to be having so much fun doing this, I just thought that was part of it. If the first jazz that I saw was very serious people in presentation or demeanor, maybe I would have been different. I have been really very fortunate from the get-go to have people along the way that have really been encouraging—older people that were in my home town, just as much as [music] veterans on the road. When you get this kind of guidance, it's really great, and you can't take that for granted.

I remember one time playing a nursing-home gig—they called them "Music Performance Trust Fund Gigs." They probably still do it; I hope they do. They had some funds, and you would sign up to play, and then they would pay cats to play a nursing home or other public-service type of gig. We were playing, this one time, and this lady, Marge Fanny was her name ... We were going to play "Sweet Georgia Brown." I was just going to go nuts and play this solo. She said, "Well you don't have to play this song; we improvise on the form of the song, and so do you." You know, she told me this.

So right then with that came, from the very words that she gave me back then in this nursing home, something I use all the time. I tell students, "You have to put yourselves in situations, and you have to be open all the time, because you never know when you can learn something or somebody enlightens you in some sort of way. You never know when you might meet that person who can totally change you."

I always try to do that. I have some facility. I play the drums pretty well, I guess, but I was always playing for the music's sake and the community feeling of playing music. That is how I always got a buzz up. That, to me, is what seemed fun. The bands that I saw and the people I saw doing this work—they seemed to really like each other, and they were having a lot of fun and I was, like, "Well that is kind of a nice family that they have along with them, their family of these musicians." And I was fascinated by that, and I still am.

You know, I still love the travel—even if I am not traveling, just being around the cats, you know. Christmas Tree-O just did some gigs, and we drove. It was Jeff Lederer, Paul Sikivie and me. Just the drive, just the discussion that you can get into on drives or on flights! I remember I did this tour with Joe Lovano and John Scofield's band—great tour. We were out for five weeks, and that's a lot of time to talk, a lot of time to visit. And I just remember sitting on planes and talking with Joe and John about things—just about music, regional scenes and our families. I really cherish that time a lot.

So I guess that is all part of it. I like the community. Community is a big word for me. I like the community not only of musicians but people like yourself that are writing and radio people and presenters. I like to go and hang out, and I like seeing people and catching up. In this day and age we have all the gadgets and everything, but it is still fun to go hang out and talk.


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