Steve Wilson: Consummate Pro

R.J. DeLuke By

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To this day, Johnny Hodges is my favorite saxophone player. That really made a change for me in terms of how I approach the sound of the instrument and lyricism.
Steve WilsonSaxophonist Steve Wilson, one of the bright talents on the New York City—or any—scene, understands the value of music education. He's very involved in it. He also understands the importance of mentorship, which comes from his days hanging out with some jazz giants at his days as student at Virginia Commonwealth University, and later doing the same when he arrived as a young man in New York City and started to expand an already growing reputation.

Even with his experiences as an educator, a highly regarded sideman, and a bandleader, he understands—and relishes—that he is still growing, still learning. That's probably why the Hampton, Virginia, native is able to play with, and enhance the music of such a wide variety of outstanding artists over the years, from the Maria Schneider Orchestra and Chick Corea's Origin, to associations with Dave Holland, Dianne Reeves, Billy Childs, Don Byron, Bill Stewart, James Williams, and Mulgrew Miller.

Corea in his liner notes to Rendezvous in New York (Stretch Records, 2003), called Wilson "a complete lyricist and adventurer as an improviser... He interprets my compositions as I would have myself if I played his horns."

"I do love being in the supportive role with some of my favorite musicians," says Wilson, who has a busy 2008 ahead, teaching, touring and recording in a variety of settings. "I've tried to scale back on that in recent years because it gets to be too much and I want to try to concentrate on some of my leadership roles... Who knows, the next 10, 15, 20 years if I'll ever become a full-time leader. That remains to be seen because I still enjoy working and forging new musical relationships I don't know that I'll ever totally concentrate on my own music. There's always something new to be explored. But certainly I want being a leader as a major part of my activity."

Wilson's alto playing, inspired by numerous players across the jazz tradition, but primarily Johnny Hodges, is strong, creative and adventurous. On soprano—particularly his work with the Maria Schneider Orchestra—is clear and exciting. On flute, Wilson carries a sweet sound full of tasteful twists and turns.

"I'm trying to incorporate that more into my quartet now. I'm loving playing the instrument," he says of the flute.

Wilson is also a strong composer—check out the outstanding Passages (Stretch, 2000)—and in a busy 2008 he is even scheduling specific times to sit down and write for upcoming projects.

"Frankly, composing has been on the back burner for the last three years, with all of my teaching activities and other activities I've done," says Wilson. "This year, I've actually blanked out space on the calendar so that I can specifically write. Probably I'll have to turn down work that I would love to take, but I've got to make space for this. This is work also. I'm really itching to get back to it and find some new vistas in composition. I would actually like to study composition with someone, or at least take a couple lessons here and there and get different ideas; give me new impetus.

Steve Wilson "The bulk of my activities right now is in education," says Wilson. "I teach at the Manhattan School of music, also at Columbia University and SUNY Purchase, all the jazz programs there. So that keeps me pretty busy when I'm home. In the summer, when I'm not touring, I'm going to get back to a couple of writing projects. I have to do a couple arrangements for the Blue Note Anniversary Band," a 70th anniversary group that will also feature Bill Charlap on piano, Lewis Nash on drums, Peter Washington on bass, Ravi Coltrane on tenor, Nicholas Payton on trumpet and Peter Bernstein on guitar. The band is set record in advance of the tour, which is in 2009.

"Then I've got a residency coming up at the University of Maryland next spring. I'm going to try to write a new composition for them. I'm hoping to write something for a larger ensemble, for a big band. Also, I hope to record my group sometime this year, a live recording. My quartet (Adam Cruz on drums, Bruce Barth on bass and Ed Howard on bass). And Lewis Nash and I have had a duet now for several years. That's been going pretty well for us, so we're looking to record that as well." A July tour of Europe with Maria Schneider is also on the docket, as is a tour with a band led by bassist Christian McBride. That's the kind of attention Wilson draws, because he brings something strong to each project with which he associates.

Amid all that, Wilson is eyeing the formation of different types of bands; in order to expand his creativity, take on different challenges.

"I'd like to have two or three different groups that I can play with because I like different directions in music. At some point, I want to try some more experimental type of things with different configurations of ensembles. But it is a tricky balance, because I pretty much cut my career on trying to learn how to be a great sideman. That's been invaluable. It's taught me a lot about how to be a leader, which I think is missing a lot these days from the scene ... But I am trying to scale back sideman activity to a premium so that I can concentrate on some of my own projects now. "

That's good news for the music scene, because Wilson's projects to date have had a strong vision, with creativity as a priority.

But the work with other outstanding musicians won't come to a complete halt. "Working with people like Maria [Schneider] and Christian [McBride] and Buster [Williams] and Mulgrew [Miller], it really inspires me musically. Quite honestly, when I'm working with them I'm as fulfilled as when I'm being a leader. Their music and their artistry and their humility are just so great. I learn a lot every time I come away from those experiences. It keeps me creative because each of those situations is different. So it keeps my mind open to different possibilities. And all of that I bring to my leadership."

Wilson has learned something through all his apprenticeships. He says having mentors among the professional ranks is very important to a young musicians development. But it isn't as common as in years past, so, as a teacher, he tries to fill that roll. It's part of the enjoyment he gets in spreading knowledge to aspiring musicians. And he gets benefits in return.

Steve Wilson He started teaching at William Patterson University in New Jersey in the 90s. Now he is teaching at SUNY Purchase in New York State, as well as Columbia University, and last year began teaching at the Manhattan School of Music.

"It's a wonderful experience. I've been really blessed with a lot of wonderful students who have a hunger for knowledge about the various aspects of the music, not just improvisation, but the other parts too, technical and professional. It really helps me to solidify my own ideas about what I'm trying to do on all those levels. And how to articulate them. So it helps me to really hone in and clarify the very points that I take to hearty and that I'm working on. It makes me reinvestigate and investigate new possibilities with some of the ideas I've been working with," says Wilson.

"Many times the students, they bring in new ideas. Sometimes new ideas, based on the concepts that we've talked about. So, there's an exchange there and it's very exciting. Many of the students now come in as freshmen or sophomores and their playing is very high compared to what it was maybe 25 years ago when I was in school. They come in now with so much knowledge and so much skill. But there's the mentorship factor that they need and are looking for... the nurturing. That's a role I've really embraced. Many of the students are not just good students, they're good people. The role that that played for me, and does play for me in my career—the mentorship—is so important. Especially now that we don't have, for all intents and purposes, an apprenticeship system in the business anymore, for various reasons. But I really embrace that goal of mentorship. It is a nurturing situation for me as well as the students."

Wilson was fortunate to be in good musical climates all his life and had experiences with some of the outstanding professionals in the field. While not from a particularly musical family, his father was a jazz enthusiast, who took him to jazz festivals when he was young. He recalls seeing people like Cannonball Adderley, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Eddie Harris, Les McCann, Freddie Hubbard and it fueled a desire to play music. The first record Wilson remembers hearing at a very young age was Ahmad Jamal: Live at the Pershing. "But my family had Stax, Motown, the Beatles. My father loved Mario Lanza. Being raised as a Baptist, there was Gospel. Later on R&B and funk and pop music of the '60s and '70s. So I had everything coming in to my ear. Later, as a teenager, that's when I became influenced by Rahsaan and Eddie Harris and Cannonball. There was such a wide variety of music I was listening to at that time. The fusion stuff was in full bloom at that time, so I was a fusion head. Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Brecker Brothers."

He started formal training at 12, in junior high school, mostly on saxophone. He played in various R&B and funk bands throughout his teens. Wilson went on to attend Virginia Commonwealth University, enrolling in the jazz studies program. He also studied oboe and flute, as well various aspects of jazz performance and writing.

"The best part about being there at that time was that it was a really vital time in the city of Richmond. The city was going through a renaissance period, especially with the arts. So there was a lot of work as a musician there and it was a great atmosphere. And we had many great artists-in-residence coming in, people who came in and spent several days or a week. People like Jackie Byard, the Heath Brothers, Elvin Jones, Sonny Rollins, Frank Foster. It was a great time to be there. That's where I made a lot of my first New York contacts, actually."

Among the gigs he got to play in college was one with pianist John Hicks, who would travel to Virginia occasionally and play with a local group. Ellis Marsalis was also teaching at Virginia Commonwealth for a time and their paths crossed. New York. In 1986, Wilson became a member of Out of the Blue, a sextet of promising young jazz players who were sponsored by Blue Note Records "It was a 'young lions' Blue Note group at the time, which afforded me the opportunity to come to New York, play with the band, and also my first tours to Europe and Japan. On those tours I got to meet a lot of New York musicians, so that was the impetus that helped me with the transition to New York."

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