The first noticeable thing about Sarah Wilson’s new album Trapeze Project is her band. Ben Goldberg plays the clarinet, Myra Melford plays the piano, and Jerome Harris and Scott Amendola are the rhythm section. If anyone from my hometown wanted to record an album with this band, they would have to commit homicide first. Jazz trumpeter and vocalist Sarah Wilson has assembled some of the best of the best, so it comes as little surprise that she is outshined by the hired help.
To be fair, a majority of the compositions that make up Trapeze Project are interesting in the sense that they don’t pride themselves on being strict jazz. The conventional harmonies and predictable forms hardly signal any kind of fearless new category-defying hybrid that her press release continually boasts, but it is an easily digestible blend that avoids hard-bop or anything too contemporary. Goldberg could be considered the star of the show many a time, since his clarinet does so much more speaking for the spirit of the music than Wilson’s own trumpet. Amendola, veteran stickman for Charlie Hunter, Nels Cline, and Goldberg himself, is of course never content to be a human timekeeper. And Melford’s piano performance can be downright lovely, even if her status as a modern maverick belies her presence on Trapeze Project.
With that talent factored in, it can threaten to work against Wilson herself. Opener “Blessing” is a good example of this, as Goldberg and Melford play their motif in perfect unison. So much personality is traveling through Goldberg’s clarinet only to set up a comparatively serviceable trumpet tone. Melford’s introduction to “She Stands in a Room” carries more warmth and expression than what soon follows, reducing a potential soaring melody into something that can be tucked away amid powerhouse performances.
But such distractions are minor compared to the vocal numbers on Trapeze Project where Wilson displays an invariable delivery with over-enunciated “r"s. Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, the album’s lone cover, reminds one of Moby’s Mancunian cover, “Temptation”, a few years back, where all the interesting and memorable components of the song were removed. Wilson keeps the melody intact, but it’s not a song suited for a slow, meditative rendition. Her own lyrics can become endlessly circling sentiments of something only she’s privy to, as on “From the River”: “I start to think of home / I feel so sad / I try to soothe myself / Sometimes it works / And other times I fade away / To another place / A place I can’t define”. “A Melancholy for Place” aims to achieve less by recounting “We felt our hearts begin to open / We felt free”.
Sarah Wilson’s press agent expends much ink telling us how diverse she is, but Trapeze Project would be a better album if she focused on her strengths and ignored the things she was merely okay at. Songs like “Himalayas” and “At Zebulon” straddle the line between accessible yet mildly surprising to an often pleasant degree. This could be her calling card if she so chooses. As it stands, though, the album is saddled with things that Wilson should only treat as curiosities. Her band overshadows her and her biographer oversells her. In interest to her longevity, it should be back to the drawing board to write more numbers like “In Resonance Light Takes Place”.