The complaint about jazz from some quarters is that it’s all just too slick and obvious, too calculated, too much the same. In short, my friends who prefer various forms of rock and hip-hop say that the jazz I love sounds about 60 years old. “I respect it and all,” they tell me, “but it’s hard to love.” Jazz is the Don Draper of music: put together but soulless, they claim.
Well that’s hooey, but I get it. Jazz can seem technical, not passionate. All the music school perfection can seem like cold calculation. There’s not always enough passion, enough humor, enough clatter and shout.
But then there’s drummer Matt Wilson. Not that he’s some punk rock guy. Hardly. He plays “jazz” that hews pretty closely to the tradition. He swings like mad. But he plays with joy and tender passion, always, and he makes sure that his bands do the same.
His new recording weds his quartet, with bassist Chris Lightcap, Jeff Lederer on reeds, and cornetist Kirk Knuffke, to the madcap pianist John Medeski — he of the jam-band imagination and wild excursions from his usual gig with Medeski, Martin, and Wood. Medeski and Wilson played together in the Either/Orchestra in the late 1980s, so they have a shared tradition of playing jazz that hews to no clear master. Both players favor an irreverence that comes from tradition and can fly out to . . . fun places. And also to heart.
Gathering Call, then, is mostly what you would expect. It’s a fun disc that sounds classic and sly, zinging but not without subtlety. It has Ellington for traditionalists and adventure for those who need a taste of the avant-garde. It also has moments of naked sincerity. Is Wilson trying to please every taste? Nope. He’s just making intelligent, no-formula music.
Ellington comes right out of the chute on the opener, the well-known “Main Stem”, a pocket-rich swinger that builds from a basic riff and then explodes into different tight ensemble passages. Knuffke sounds like an old section guy, trading 12-bar statements with Lederer on tenor before they start playing an intertwined duet chorus. They play two-note hits behind Medeski’s spirited amble across the chords. This leads as naturally as possible into a more madcap tune, “Some Assembly Required”, which is boppy but also lets the players loose as if they’re in the Ornette Coleman bands of the 1960s. A similar vibe prevails on “How Ya Going?” — featuring the two horns and Medeski in a collective improvisation that is like refracted Dixieland. Wilson is having so much fun accenting every line and lick from his throne, well, you can hear his grin in the grooves.
The jazz “wit” for which Wilson is well-known shows up on several short cuts in different ways. The title track is a tiny concerto for drums, with Wilson taking the lead on the “head” with only interjections from the horns. It’s raucous, as if the inmates took over the band room and decided to do one-minute-forty-seven of pratfalls and jokes. “Dreamscape” is built over a series of clatters on the rim of the snare that sound like a parade of mice heading through your home’s air ducts. Medeski dances too in his upper register as the horns whisper and sputter. By the time you wonder what’s going through your mind . . . it’s over.
Straight-up funky jazz of a early era gets a workout here too. “Get Over, Get Off, and Get On” is a hip-swayer like “Watermelon Man” or “The Sidewinder” but composed by Hugh Lawson, with Medeski playing bluesy and fresh. It’s inventive too because the horns join in not in straight solos but in a dialogue with each other, overlapping leads coming and going. “Pumpkin’s Delight” (a Charlie Rouse tune) has a bass line that alternates between funk and a fast walk, with Wilson playing a dancing Latin groove in most places.
Also funky, but moving, is “If I Were a Boy” — the Beyonce tune, interpreted here with poignance and grace. The melody is assayed on cornet, shadowed by tenor, and Lightcap and Wilson put down a minimal but very effective groove. Medeski enters on the bridge with thick, dramatic chords, then drops out for an even more intimate return of the main theme. It’s not tongue-in-cheek. It’s excellent and heartfelt. Lederer lets loose a barreling solo that allows every band member to play with complete freedom behind him to the point that the groove breaks down into a long rest . . . only to return again with beauty.
Several songs show this band’s more moody, atmospheric side. “Dancing Waters” features an impressionistic blend of unison horn melody and contemplative bass melody, leading to a tempo-less cascade of ensemble playing. “Barack Obama” starts with beautiful falling patterns of piano before the horns begin dancing a delicate melody that manages to be beautiful and puckish at once.
Gathering Call ends on a tender note. “Juanita” is a folk song played here just by the trio of Medeski, Lightcap, and Wilson, presented as a gentle waltz where parts of the melody are played high in the piano’s register and seem to be tumbling off the bookshelves of a little kid. The performance gets slightly dissonant in places, like it’s fraying the way an old teddy bear might, It is a goodnight song for a feisty album, a little prayer, a thing that you want to hold gently in your hand.
For all the fun on this recording, Wilson, his quartet, and Medeski, prove many times over that, though they may be jazz scamps, they are also taking the music very seriously. “Hope (for the Cause)” is another one where everything comes together with beauty and intensity. Matt Wilson has no trouble taking off the jester’s cap once he’s got your attention. He is good and clever enough to know that his art works every which way.