There is not a ton of wit in jazz, that too-often-somber music. Besides, can a saxophone tell a joke?
A drum kit, however ... Or so it seems with Matt Wilson, a post-modern musician whose bands and recordings always seem to have a hip, snappy manner, a certain nutty way of walking down the street. Who could be surprised that on Going Once, Going Twice Wilson fused post-bop jazz with a mad auctioneer? No shock that Wilson’s website lets you download a “Fun Sheet” or that he attributes his interest in the drums to watching “Little Ricky” on I Love Lucy.
That’s Gonna Leave a Mark is the latest from the Matt Wilson Quartet, one of the leader’s two main bands. The quartet features two woodwinds—here, Andrew D’Angelo on alto sax and bass clarinet, Jeff Lederer on tenor and soprano sax and clarinet, Chris Lightcap on bass, and Wilson on drums. And, once again, there is a cheerful, antic quality to this music, a sense of dance and delight that is too often absent from serious jazz.
This bounce certainly comes first from Wilson’s own hands. As a drummer, he has the light, sharp pop to his playing of Roy Haynes, and the dancing sense of play of Ed Blackwell. It’s no surprise, then, that Wilson has a penchant for recording Ornette Coleman tunes or that his quartet has the same instrumentation as one of Coleman’s classic formations. More to the point, the Quartet plays (and composes) with an Ornette-ian sensibility of joy. D’Angelo and Lederer may play “out” much of the time, but their musicality is more like children colorfully straying beyond the lines than like any kind of hard-nosed rebellion.
This music is played with verve. It is—you betcha—fun. And yet it remains jazz with a downtown pedigree and no compromises.
I mean, how are you not going to like a snapping Lightcap tune called “Celibate Oriole”? Built around short syncopated phrases that have a Coleman kind of sing-songiness, the tune has a mad, drunken quality. Lederer solos with sloppy directness, making wide interval jumps and using a rough tone. Then D’Angelo slashes and cries, mixing long shrieks, slippery runs, low honks, and buzzing bi-tones. That oriole, my friends, has got a lot of energy.
“Area Man” (Wilson) is played as a rocker, based around a mid-tempo backbeat and a pentatonic melody. When the horn players improvise, they do it in duet throughout, making this an increasingly complex collective improvisation, as Wilson complicates his groove to reflect the shouts of the saxophones. “Rear Control” is a feature for the clarinets, yet it moves around from a funk groove to a tasty swing in perfect dovetail, using the same horn lick to lock them together. And “Getting Friendly” is a ballad that moves with tentative steps toward charm.
These blasts of jazz-fun do not come from nowhere. Wilson and his band are the kind of super-smart modern jazz musicians who know their history and find it in many places. The tradition is less a textbook than a scrapbook—various swatches from multiple sources, juxtaposed with care and irony, thought and cluttered randomness. (Another no surprise: Wilson’s other main group is called “Arts and Crafts”.)
Thus it is that the band takes a swing here at John Lewis’s “Two Bass Hit”, a bebop era tune that could not be more fun to play and that invites a highly vocal yet concise solo from Lederer. Just as easily, though, the band plays a hymn (“Come and Find the Quiet Center”) with no apparent sense of irony. Equal reverence is reserved for the War song from the 1970s, “Why Can’t We Be Friends?”. The arrangement calls for innocent, wordless vocals out front (supplied by “The Swayettes” and “The Wilson Family Singers”), with the signature choruses reserved for the horns and bass at first, then tossed to singers on a long out-chorus.
Wilson sees his music as a way to reach, to communicate. Uninterested in some kind of hip disdain for his audience, he reaches fully across the table to get this music heard by anyone who wants to enjoy it. He has this band doing clinics with students all around the world, and that seems just right. This kind of playful seriousness about art is a perfect model for a modern mindset: informed but original, daring but joyous.
That’s Gonna Leave a Mark is Matt Wilson’s latest album title but, also, a manifesto or prayer. This is a terrific musician and a strong band. And it is band with a mission, if seems, of making this music live more completely in the moment. For now, mission accomplished.