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.

AAJ: In listening to your recordings as a leader, as in Arts & Crafts, that notion comes through and probably cannot be separated from the music. It comes through in the space or in the room that the other musicians seems to have.

MW: I always know that I am fortunate to have these people as friends, and they happen to be really great musicians. They are very special. For example, with Dennis Irwin, who passed away and who was the original bassist in Arts & Crafts, if we could just spend five more minutes talking with Dennis—we wouldn't have to play with him again but just to have five more minutes of saying something—it would be really, really great. I think as you get older, you just have to realize these things too—a little bit about the vulnerability of things and how special it is to get to do this. I think sometimes we take it for granted. My buddy Andrew D'Angelo, who played with the Quartet for a long time, we were just laughing the other day about the time that we were hanging sheetrock at the first house that my wife and I bought—and we were hanging it, and he's really great at this stuff, and I was holding this thing up over my head, and I am shaking and he's drilling to put the thing up, and we looked at each other—and he said, "Let's never complain when we are out on the road again, ever, because this is a drag."

We'll complain about: "Oh man, this hotel," or "Man, this food," but we get a chance to do this, and I never take that part of it for granted. That's why I like going and playing in different places. And sometimes there are a lot of people there and sometimes there's not. It's just the way it happens, but that has always been this way in this music; it's not like all places are always packed. It feels good to give some people an opportunity, an hour or so, to kind of leave what is going on and be taken up.

That is why being inclusive is such an important part of the band leading. I learned that from people. You have those people there because you know who to surround yourself with. Dewey Redman was a big mentor of mine, and I played with him for 12 years. He said, "You know, when you want to lead a band you pick people that you love to play with, and you pick songs, and you let them play." I know how to surround myself with good people, and I treat them well. Being a good band leader comes from learning what I have learned as a side-person, and I have learned a lot from being a band leader that makes me a better sideman. There is a sense of pride for me when someone in one of my bands can turn around and say to me, "Wow, that was so much fun." That, to me, is the ultimate compliment.

AAJ: Do you ever find that there are instances where you are not giving enough direction or a musician will yearn for more of it?

MW: Yeah, and you learn to sense that after a while. My philosophy is that you want to be able to, at any time, lead, follow or just get out of the way. Sometimes you've got to take charge. Somebody has got to, but sometimes you can't— you don't want to be the leader all the time, so it's give-and-take with all this. There are times you have to make decisions. I've made some good band decisions, I think, sometimes on the bandstand; sometimes I haven't, about tune choices or whatever. If people know that you are there for them, I think it makes a big difference. I have had some good role models for this, though. People have been very generous with me. Dewey said, "People sound their best when they play with me." I have written about this and talked about it a lot. At first I was taken aback, but that is a really great gift—to bring out the best in people and let them shine. And that goes beyond the bandstand. You know, it goes beyond everything.

We are in pretty naked territory when we are up there together, so you have a relationship with people, especially in improvised settings—naked in a good way, but naked you really are. If you are really vulnerable then that is when real magic happens. The word "careless," this word about "care": you want to care about things, but then there is "careful" and there is "careless" and there is "carefree;" I mean, there are all these ways in which "care" can be in these words. I don't want to be careful necessarily, though careless is not great in music, either. So there is a responsibility, and I think what is great about everybody I play with is that they have such good presence. They are so comfortable with themselves that they welcome new challenges- -and it is not necessarily challenges of really hard music that they have to figure out. It is more like a challenge of: how am I going to allow them, help them, or how are they going to allow themselves to offer and then receive. They are all great receivers; also, they are great allowers. When I have been around somebody like Joe Lovano or John Scofield or Dewey, these guys just have a different energy about them that I really admire and I really want to be around and be a part of.
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