Tony Wilson is a guitarist and composer based in Vancouver, British Columbia, and you probably don’t know of him. My suggestion: get up on this guy. His music blasts with invention and daring.
On the Vancouver scene, Wilson is everywhere all the time, playing in bebop groups, coloring and soloing in Peggy Lee’s incredible large band, and leading several of his own groups. His sextet collects several of the city’s best players (cellist Lee, drummer Dylan van der Schyff, sax player David Say, trumpeter Kevin Elaschuk, and bassist Paul Blaney) and then asks them to play with disciplined abandon.
The People Who Look Like Flowers At Last is as successful as it is ambitious. The first nine tracks are Wilson arrangements/compositions based on “Lachrymae”, a Benjamin Britten sonata for viola and piano. These tracks range broadly over the jazz and “new music” spectrum, from free improvisation to tightly limited sonic clarity. Additionally, Wilson has composed four originals that compliment the Britten material. Each track is a world unto itself.
The group is arrayed evenly between a chamber formalism and jazz experimentation. Though you might hear it as a string trio (guitar, cello, bass) balanced by a jazz group (drums, sax, trumpet), it would be equally valid to hear Lee’s cello as the adventurous edge of much of this group’s improvising. Her sound has an arid, dangerous quality on many tunes, with the two horns acting more lyrically. Wilson’s guitar is most often subtle or carefully hemmed in by its place in the arrangements. The Tony Wilson Sextet is not a particularly guitar-centric band.
“Movement 2” of “Lachyrmae”, for example, begins with a wide open duet between Lee and van der Schyff, which then subtly includes Wilson’s guitar as it finally settles on a tonal center. Lee’s cello is a rich, burgundy thing: raspy and raucous when it needs to be. So when Wilson joins in with a clean, distortion-less tone, his guitar seems almost a soft echo of the main voice. The two join forces on a written melody only in the last 30 seconds of the piece.
All the tracks are concise and to the point, measuring at no more than five minutes. Within this boundary, Wilson constructs widely varied miniatures. “Movement 4” starts with a jagged, back-and-forth unison for guitar and cello, and then it adds a leaping trumpet line. Elaschuk’s solo never gets comfortable, exactly, but it carries us to the end of the composition and into a “Movement 4, Variation” that is mostly the itchy, daring work by the trio.
Some of the work is easy on the ears, but that still doesn’t make it complacent. The brief “Movement 7” has a feeling of a march in waltz time, with Wilson playing the leaping intervals of a slow melody while the horn answer in two-note bursts. It feels like hip, funereal circus music. The subsequent “Movement 7, Variation” suddenly releases Say on a flowing soprano saxophone solo, cloaked a free-time accompaniment that smacks of Mingus more than Britten.
The Wilson originals are equally boundless. “The People Look Like Flowers At Last” (a title taken from poet Charles Bukowski) takes advantage of harmonies that might have appeared on a 1960s Blue Note album, moving with a lilting sway and a minor mode. Wilson is equally comfortable, however, with “Let the Monkeys Dance”, where his guitar vaults across traditional harmony while van der Schyff opens up free chasms of rhythm underneath him.
What Tony Wilson is constructing in the Pacific Northwest deserves to be seen and heard across the jazz scene — it’s as hip and smart as anything the cats are cooking up in Park Slope or the East Village. Fusing classical chamber music, free “new music”, and pungent post bop is simple enough to imagine, but Wilson pulls it off with a unique blend of discipline and whimsy. This work is particularly impressive coming from a guitarist. Wilson never relies on tricks of tone. He doesn’t play with a gimmicky sense of “rock”, but neither does he limit himself to a pure tone. Wilson seems, as a player and a composer, to be beyond category.
Now let’s get him beyond geography. His talent is worldwide in power.