Matt Wilson’s Arts and Crafts Shows Attitude, Gratitude on Tour
Drummer Matt Wilson has settled into a serious—and not so desperately serious—groove with his Arts and Crafts quartet. A six-night residency at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York no doubt cemented the music amid the group’s 28-date tour in support of its new album, An Attitude For Gratitude (Palmetto). By the time they hit Chicago’s Green Mill for two nights in May, they were totally relaxed and in the pocket. Kicking off the first set with Thelonious Monk’s “Wee See”—from Arts and Crafts’ previous recording, The Scenic Route—the band exploded with joie de vivre.
Wilson likes to parallel Monk’s melodies with precise articulations and punctuations; a composer himself, his affinity with certain tunes is beyond “here’s a set-filler with a little built-in kudos.” He communicates deep affection for the standards he cherry-picks, revivifying without overblown rearrangement. Thus, Terell Stafford’s trumpet is left to bathe “Happy Days Are Here Again”—a ditty associated with the repeal of Prohibition, ironically, given the Mill’s bootlegging past—in bittersweet pathos.
The preponderance of ballads early in the evening—Stafford’s flugelhorn also swooned over Nelson Cavaquinho’s “Beija Flor,” from the original Arts and Crafts debut CD a dozen years ago—contrasts markedly with the high jinx of Wilson’s quartet with altoist Andrew D’Angelo. In Arts and Crafts, craft is equal to art, Attitude For Gratitude a neat subheading for that somewhat humble ethos.
During email communication after the tour, Wilson agreed: “None of us take for granted how wonderful it is to be out playing and teaching. I am grateful to have Terell, Gary and Martin as friends that I just happen to get to play music with also. We love to hang with audiences and students. That love is evident in every aspect of our lives.”
Despite their musical maturity onstage, the quartet members tease each other on the road. As they cram into one of the storied booths at the Mill, where all manner of gangsters and great musicians have rubbed elbows over the course of a century or so, the banter between Stafford and Versace is mock abrasive.
“I love how they really give each other hassle,” Wilson said about his bandmates. “It is harmless. Keeps them occupied. We all abuse Gary. He can dish it back. He just made a film on a plane of me sleeping with my mouth open. He put a wadded up piece of paper in my mouth. He was teaming up with my daughter Audrey last tour via texts with ways to annoy me. He has a way of disarming folks and allowing them to be goofy and beyond. It is a gift.”
Despite offstage pranks, Versace loses himself in the music on the bandstand, often with eyes closed and head rearing back at the piano, playing with a sensitivity to touch and dynamic you can hear overtly at the end of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” closing out the new CD.
Switching to organ at the Mill, he exhibited a different personality, imbuing the instrument with a conceptual rock approach at instances—arms crisscrossed over the keyboards, sustaining hip affects and chord colorations that lie beyond the B3’s cornball proclivities.
As Versace was deep in his cups tying up a musical knot, Stafford reached over to mess with the organ stops as if to bring him back to earth.
German bassist Martin Wind is the most grounded guy in the group, as bassists often are, graciously allowing Versace to trade foot-driven bass lines in duet with Wilson during Nat Adderley’s “Little Boy With The Sad Eyes.”
When Wilson marks the exchange of solos now and again with an amusing end-of-round boxing bell (“ting-ting”), it’s a reminder that he’s listening. However, there’s a whole new sound to one of his cymbals, a deadened but character-laden “tang” from a large, impressive golden disc.
“I have always loved china cymbals as part of a setup,” wrote Wilson, referring to the latest baby in his kit. “Mel Lewis and my great friend Jeff Hamilton use them beautifully as a ride cymbal color. Mine is a beauty. A 22-inch Swish Knocker from my good fiends at the Zildjan company. This year, I am celebrating my 20th year as an endorser. They are incredible folks, very supportive of jazz drummers. They like my ‘odd’ ways.”
Meanwhile, Stafford has accessories of his own, deploying diverse mutes to vary his very direct, conversational sound.
Salient during remaining sets at the Mill were renditions of Wilson’s breezy “Out Of Nowhere” contrafact, hilariously re-dubbed “No Outer Where,” drop-shadowed with Monkish harmonies by Versace; and “Bubbles,” a spoken-word homage to Wilson’s favorite poet, Carl Sandburg, the drummer and father of four always eager to channel childlike wonder.
Asked about the highs and lows of the tour, Wilson was predictably upbeat: “Many highs. Tri-C festival Cleveland gig was incredible. The residency for Jazz St. Louis, very inspiring. Having Kurt Elling, Anat Cohen, Scott Robinson and Sharel Cassity sit in with us at Dizzy’s. Dr. Lonnie Smith played a tune with us in Florida. Curtis Stigers sang with us in Boise.”
Such open-armed, open-eared inclusiveness is intrinsic to Wilson’s appeal. He’s outward yet not averse to the inward, an arty-san and a crafty-san—delightfully unpretentious. As he puts it, without air but with some grace, “We play simple music, and we can immediately welcome folks.”