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Steven Wilson at Theatre St-Denis

John Kelman By

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Steven Wilson
Théâtre St-Denis
Montréal, Canada
March 2, 2016

Perhaps one of the biggest signs of multi-instrumentalist Steven Wilson's continued upward trajectory is this: less than nine months after selling out two nights at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal in 2015, he brought his top- drawer band back to Montreal for another packed-to-the-rafters show, this time at Théâtre St-Denis, where Crimson delivered two stunning nights last November. Beyond the fact that, despite issuing an EP-length, in-between album called 4 1/2 (Kscope, 2016) and a vinyl-only compilation, Transience (Kscope, 2015) of some of his more accessible material, Wilson is still primarily touring Hand. Cannot. Erase. (Kscope, 2015), his fourth full-length studio album since going solo in 2009 with Insurgentes (Kscope).

If Wilson's past couple of tours were the beginning of his reclamation of material written and performed when he was a member of Porcupine Tree—the group that really began as a solo project for a much younger Wilson (who had already begun playing with singer Tim Bowness in No-Man) but, with its almost immediate success and attention, demanded the formation of a proper band for touring and, therefore, the start down the road towards something that, while still primarily led by Wilson, was more democratic in nature—his 2016 tour has begun to bring back far more Porcupine Tree material than ever before.

For the first time, Wilson's divided his show into two sets, complete with intermission. For his first set, he delivered a complete, front-to-back performance of Hand. Cannot. Erase—a change from his 2015 tour, where the album was played in bits and pieces, with other material from his solo career mixed in. For his second set Wilson covered three pieces from 4 1/2, a tribute to David Bowie with a lovely version of the recently deceased singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist's "Space Oddity," and a full five Porcupine Tree songs—though one, "Don't Hate Me," was revisited in a new but relatively faithful version on 4 1/2—plus one song each from his first three solo albums: Insurgentes's schizophrenic but still radio-friendly "Harmony Korine"; the re-imagined, more hardcore version of "Index," from 2011's Grace for Drowning (Kscope), that Wilson first introduced during his 2015 tour; and the haunting, evocative title track to 2013's The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories (Kscope).

Earlier, during the afternoon before the performance, longtime keyboardist Adam Holzman sat down for coffee, a hang and a short interview. Now in his fifth year with Wilson, Holzman has surpassed the "four years to a day" tenure he held with Miles Davis during the late trumpeter's final years in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Holzman—now on the south side of his 50s but with the demeanor of a much younger man—has been on the scene for decades, largely in the jazz and fusion/funk sphere where, in addition to his own solo projects, he has collaborated with everyone from pianist Michel Petrucciani, the Mahavishnu Project and trumpeter Wallace Roney to singer Chaka Khan, saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. and vibraphonist Mike Mainieri's Steps Ahead. He's also been working with his wife, guitarist Jane Getter, playing on and producing all four of her albums commencing with the more fusion/funk-centric Jane (Alex Merck Music, 1998) and culminating in her gradual move towards more progressive music with her new band, Premonition on its 2016 debut, ON (Madfish, 2016)—a subsidiary label to Wilson's, Kscope. During a relatively short break in Wilson's schedule, Holzman managed to hit the road with Getter for short tours of the US and Europe.

"When I first met Jane she was practically still in the wake of Brother Jack McDuff, so she was 'Miss Straight-ahead,'" says Holzman. "She gradually came to jazz rock and fusion, but it's been over the last 10 years that she's gone more and more towards metal; we listen to all this music in the car and she's gone much more into the heavy stuff than I have. It's very guitar-oriented; she wants to play, so she has also been looking for a context where she can reach more people and have more success while still being able to play. That's where progressive rock is really a logical step...if it isn't done in a cheesy way.

"Putting a brand-new band out on the road with minimal support makes it a real uphill battle," Holzman continues, about touring with Premonition. "There are a number of things that I think would have helped it; that said, the London gig was great. We had a lot of people there; Prog Magazine showed up, Jane's label showed up, all the guys in Steven's band showed up. It was really a great show of support and Jane was completely honored and thrilled, so we left London on a real high note where we felt we had really accomplished something.

"It's never completely wasted; there was some hard running around but by the time we got to London the band was totally whipped into shape and I feel really positive about it," Holzman concludes. "It put Jane on the map in Europe, and it showed to Jane's record label that she was ready to work and kill to make this happen. And the band sounded great; she has this guy, Randy McStine; he was in the Pink Floyd Experience. I didn't really know about him until Jane introduced me to him, but he was great; he played really, really well, learned all the parts and sung really well. It was amazing. He sang all the songs that [Living Colour vocalist] Corey [Glover] sang on the album, he sang harmony with Jane...the whole vocal thing was a much stronger presentation. I mean, it was great having Alex [Skolnick, who plays second guitar on the record] soloing side-by-side with Jane, but I think, after awhile, the strength that Randy brought on the vocal front helped the show overall. So Randy's turned out to be a great addition; he's a really smart guy, talented...I was really impressed with this guy. It was the perfect group for the project. I think Jane's finally at a place now where someone could step in and do some serious booking."

But Holzman's own profile has also been on the rise since beginning to play with Wilson in 2011. While he's participated on many projects with many artists, playing with Wilson has, for the first time, really helped him to reach an audience beyond jazz. Being one of two members of Wilson's band that have remained constant since he first toured solo in 2011 hasn't hurt, the other being bassist/stick player/vocalist Nick Beggs. "Playing with Steven has definitely helped my profile. You can play great sideman gigs with great people, but it isn't until you're in a situation like this, where even though you're a sideman with Steven as well, there is clearly more of a band concept. The band members are featured a lot more and there is also a consistency; when you're a sideman, say, for Chaka Kahn, unless you take a blazing solo no-one is really going to notice you—and they shouldn't, because you should be serving the gig. Playing with Steven is a different sort of thing, as he likes to give everybody a little bit of play and so we're somewhere between hired guns and a real sort of band."

Holzman was already a fan of Porcupine Tree when he was approached by Wilson for the 2011 Grace for Drowning tour and, while he's likely come to be a bit less of one in the ensuing years, it's great to see that a musician of his caliber can still be a bit of an enthusiastic "fan boy" when the occasion arises. Just a few months into the first tour, Wilson released a limited edition CD that contained about 70 minutes worth of music (subsequently followed by a full show on the CD/DVD/Blu Ray release, Get All You Deserve (Kscope, 2012)), Holzman reveals that he "was so psyched when Catalog | Preserve | Amass (Headphone Dust, 2012) came out. I love that little live album; that was so great for me because I was a Porcupine Tree fan before I started playing with Steven. So when you do a tour and within months out comes this little live CD? I thought, 'Wow, this is so cool.'"

Of course, Holzman has since released his own "little" live album, culled from the 2013 The Raven tour: The Deform Variations (Burning Shed, 2015), a 40-minute solo piano outing culled from his short introductions to one of Wilson's most beautiful tunes, Grace for Drowning's "Deform to Form a Star." Consisting of 27 snippets, named simply after the cities in which they were recorded and ranging from a mere 37 seconds to just over two-and-a-half, it's a wonder of selection and editing; a cohesive, uninterrupted 40 minutes of music beginning with the intro and ending with the outro that he played every night but with improvisations played in-between that, here, come together with remarkable cogency and interrelated relevance. It's not an album that prog fans would necessarily buy were it not associated with Wilson, but like guitarist Nels Cline and the growth of an audience for his own avant-centric jazz music since he joined Wilco in 2004, Holzman has definitely benefited from his association with Wilson.

"It's pretty much the forum it's being sold in," Holzman says. "Most of what's been sold has been at Steven's gigs. The numbers are not big but it's a solo piano album based on improvisation—and I'm happy with it. I think that my vision of it, with the packaging and everything, was to have it be a part of that Grace for Drowning family: Grace for Drowning, Catalog | Preserve | Amass and Get All You Deserve. It's kinda aimed at Steven's fans, and you know a lot of them have probably never bought a solo piano album, so it's a bit of a stretch.

"There were over 50 improvisations recorded, so I selected the best ones and edited them together," Holzman continues. "So with some, I chopped off the beginning or the ending so I could create segues. It took a little bit of tweaking, but it flowed easily. It took about a month or so, but fortunately I wasn't under a lot of pressure. [Wilson Manager] Andy [Leff] actually suggested it. He's a big jazz fan—a big Keith Jarrett fan—so he was always really supportive of that bit in the show and he said, 'Man, you should make a record of this.' So when I got the go-ahead from him, I didn't have to ask too many peoples' permission, and Steven was supportive too. I've never put out a solo piano record and would like to do a proper one in a studio someday, but I was really glad to get the chance to do this one."

Beyond continuing to record and tour with Wilson, Holzman still has plans for his own band, Brave New World— though even those plans have been impacted by the work he's done with Wilson.
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