Matt Wilson’s CommUnity


The “Good Trouble” band, from left, Jeff Lederer, Tia Fuller, Matt Wilson, Dawn Clement and Ben Allison.

(Photo: John Abbott)

Mid-morning on the first Wednesday of April, Matt Wilson was making his weekly 75-minute drive from Baldwin, New York, a community of 30,000 near Long Island’s south shore, to the Conservatory of Music at SUNY–Purchase in Westchester, where he serves as visiting affiliate artist. Once on site, he’d give private lessons with five different drummers and attend an evening recital by a former student before driving home. Meanwhile, he shared many specifics of his cram-packed itinerary.

Per his custom, Wilson, who turns 60 in September, had been up since 7 a.m., although he’d played the night before at an upscale Midtown Manhattan lounge with singer Anais Reno (a Purchase undergrad), after concluding the second of two full days at the New School, another weekly sinecure.

Before hitting the road, he watched a video clip of drummer Andrew Cyrille and reviewed the scores he’d written to frame 18 poems by Carl Sandburg — from Galesburg, Illinois, one town over from Wilson’s hometown of Knoxville — that became the basis for his 2017 recording Honey And Salt (Sunnyside). He’d be performing that material Thursday and Friday at Boston’s Regattabar and the University of New Hampshire.

On Saturday, he’d drive four hours from New Hampshire to Sarah Lawrence College (where he teaches most Thursdays) for another student recital, before heading home, where, on Sunday, he’d fulfill his functions as a deacon of Baldwin’s First Presbyterian Church.

It’s the schedule of a full life and a successful jazz artist — Monday, the New School and fly to St. Louis to perform as guest artist, Wednesday off to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for a monthly three-day teaching stint and performance, Saturday a cross-country swing to Chris’ Jazz Café in Philadelphia and Sunday back to Brooklyn to code-switch with Jane Ira Bloom and Mark Helias.

“After I taught at the New School on Monday, I rehearsed with Jane and Mark,” Wilson added. “That’s the way it goes. I love this.”

Thoughts of his impending night in Boston spurred Wilson’s recollection of a “life changing” lesson there in 1991 with Cyrille, in town for a concert with pianist Donal Fox. He’d moved to Boston after graduating from Wichita State University four years earlier, with his new bride, Felicia, a violinist. From then until moving to New York in 1992, Wilson worked steadily around Boston, forming friendships with kindred 360-degree spirits like keyboardist John Medeski, saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase and bassist Bob Nieske, all members of the Either/Orchestra, Russ Gershon’s accomplished left-of-center big band in which Wilson applied Cyrille’s observations on “the reinforcement of basics of movement, sound, stroke and also using your imagination on how to address the music,” establishing the mix-it-all-up approach that still informs his musical production.

“Andrew’s playing with Donal [Fox] was great accompaniment drumming, so intertwined in the fabric of the sound,” Wilson said. “It was the same when I saw Ed Blackwell with Dewey Redman in January 1988. Melody is rhythm, or sounds, or spaces. People often focus on the point of the beat — the striking of, say, the cymbal to start the sound — and not as much on the spread that results from the sound or the space that happens before you strike it again. If you’re aware of those three elements, you have a lot more ways of sharing the time.”

He recalled listening from the drum chair as singer Bill Henderson sang “Days Of Wine And Roses” a cappella at the Algonquin Hotel in an October 2001 revue titled, “Made for the Movies: A Hollywood Songbook.”

“Every night, I was infatuated by what he did with the ends of his notes,” Wilson said. “You can do vibrato or trail off with a voice or saxophone or trumpet. When we strike the drums, it lasts. So we’ve got to be aware of where that sound goes, and if we have that intention in our imaginations, we can do the same thing. I always assign students to listen to the ends of the notes when vocalists and saxophonists play ballads.”

Jaylen Petinaud, drummer on most of Herbie Hancock’s tours last year, testified to the efficacy of Wilson’s “the space is what matters” mantra. “Matt starts his lessons talking with you for at least 10 minutes, to figure out what you’re feeling and what you need,” Petinaud said by phone before attending soundcheck for a preview performance of Alicia Keyes’ Broadway musical Hell’s Kitchen. “He saw that I needed help in being creative and wide-open. He showed me how to dive deeper into the drum set, to think about it as a blank canvas to which you’re adding the colors. It’s not just playing fast or playing different rudiments.”

He recalled witnessing Wilson at the Jazz Standard before the pandemic lockdown. “I couldn’t believe the different tones he got out of the hi-hat,” Petinaud said. “He’s not playing the hi-hat on 2 and 4, but you don’t miss it or notice it because of how powerful and intentional his ride cymbal beat is. He’d give me exercises where the ride is consistent, but you’re thinking about playing a whole note or half note with your left hand. I still use the techniques he showed me to get a big, full sound.”

Wilson’s keen attention to the details of rhythm-timbre and his inclusive personality are two primary factors why, as his old friend Jeff Lederer said, “Any time Matt sits down with a group of musicians, whether or not they even know each other, they sound like a band — he brings everyone into the sound.”

Lederer and Wilson bonded on an initial 1993 encounter in the East Village, when Wilson uncorked a surf rock groove midway through Lederer’s balls-out declamation on Albert Ayler’s “Universal Indians.” “I thought he’d brought to the party exactly what the music needed, and he does it every time,” Lederer said, referring to the variety of bands the two have played in together — from Lederer’s Ayler-inspired Sunwatcher and Brooklyn Blowhards bands to Wilson’s Quartet, the holiday-inspired Christmas Tree-O, the Leap Day Trio and the Honey and Salt ensemble.

“Matt has a way of incorporating word structure into everything he does, but especially in Honey and Salt,” Lederer said, citing Wilson’s deep connection to Ed Blackwell via Dewey Redman, his frequent 1990s employer, and to West African drum-as-storyteller traditions. He also cited Wilson’s predisposition to apply projects playful, ritualistic frames that make the medicine go down smoothly, no matter how venturesome the musical flow.

“In the Christmas Tree-O, we’ll do something that might feel odd or silly, or run the risk of being completely bizarre in a kitsch way — and then Matt turns it on its head, into a profound musical gesture,” Lederer said. “The clarity of his sound, particularly his ride cymbal beat, is unmatched. He doesn’t force your feeling of where the time is, but connects to whatever your rhythmic feel is. For me, it feels like breathing together, and I’m sure a lot of people experience that with Matt. And he’s very aware of orchestrating on the drums. Sometimes he’ll stick with a clear, relatively simple texture for chorus after chorus; other times he’ll create a non-traditional texture, maybe keeping time in another component and using the cymbal only for color.”

For Wilson, the attitude implied in the flexibility that Lederer referenced is what swinging and orchestration is all about. “Swing to me isn’t a beat,” he said. “It’s a community feeling on a bandstand.”

That spirit animates Wilson’s latest release, Good Trouble (Palmetto), by a quintet comprising Lederer, alto saxophonist Tia Fuller, pianist/vocalist Dawn Clement and bassist Ben Allison, who each have consequential histories with Wilson but had never performed as a unit until convening in 2022 at Galesburg’s Rootabaga Jazz Festival, named for Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories.

As suggested by the title, the 10-tune album is built around Wilson’s three-part “Good Trouble Suite,” which begins and ends with tone-parallels to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (“RBG”) and Representative John Lewis (“Good Trouble”), sandwiching “Walk With The Wind,” named for Lewis’ memoir.

Wilson also composed “Fireplace” (a contrafact of Geri Allen’s “Feed The Fire”) and the affirmative, highlife-tinged “CommUnity Spirit,” as well as arrangements of Gary Bartz’s “Libra,” from Max Roach’s iconic 1968 album Members Don’t Get Weary; Ornette Coleman’s ebullient “Feet Music”; and John Denver’s “Sunshine On My Shoulders.”

“Matt sometimes shies away from calling himself a composer, but he’s one of the greatest jazz composers I know,” Lederer said. “He usually creates clear, not-complex structures. But in every song he does something special — maybe a slightly different phrase length, or making the ‘A’ sections a little different. There’s always a twist.”

Wilson debuted the tunes in the suite a few days after Justice Ginsburg’s death, at a September 2020 outdoor concert performance in Central Park produced by Jimmy Katz’s Walk With the Wind series.

“We read out the tunes, and then Matt and I had conversations about the idea,” Lederer said. “It sounds a bit nerdy, but at that particular political moment there was a need for music that felt patriotic. The germ of the Good Trouble group began with Matt’s impulse to write these songs that have, even more than a community feeling, almost a civic feeling to them.”

Following his preference for “always liking things to be an event,” Wilson decided to bring an expanded, Lederer-arranged version of the suite to an all-state high school band concert in Kansas that he was scheduled to conduct in January 2021.

“They rehearsed and recorded it online, and did readings from Justice Ginsburg and Representative Lewis,” Wilson said. “They worked so hard that I decided they needed other opportunities. I called Wynton Marsalis and asked him to talk to them. He said, ‘What day, what time?’ ‘Saturday afternoon.’ So Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m., Wynton spent an hour-and-a-half online answering questions from these students. I think they had a way more powerful philosophical and cultural experience than if I’d flown out there and rehearsed some music for them to play. I’m in touch with these students a lot. It got a nice response, and I decided to do it with this band at the Rootabaga Festival and on the new record. The chemistry was great.”

During the 2022 Rootabaga Fest, Wilson and Lederer celebrated their long association by filming tenor sax and cymbal-snare drum duets at different local landmarks: the kitchen of the farmhouse where his father grew up, in the family since the 1850s; Maid-Rite, a sandwich shop specializing in loose meat sandwiches; the Coney Island, a hot dog stand; the Lutheran church he grew up in. “We called it the AgriCulture Duo,” Wilson said. “I want people to know my roots a little bit. I played on weekends as a kid with great musicians. When I’m at the farmhouse, I try to catch sunsets and sunrises, and I think how many people have looked out over that field to see it. I often think, wow, I’ve come a long way from here. But really, you create your community. You find things or do research, broaden your horizons, find out what’s new and not be closed off. My parents were like that. They loved the music that I do. My dad could fix everything. Until he was older, I never saw him take the car to a mechanic. He changed engines. He dug our well.

“I was born with a club foot. I’ve had three surgeries, and had 27 casts on my left leg. I have two different sized feet. My mother thought I had an affinity for the drums because, since I couldn’t move around that much, she’d stack up records on the stereo console, and as they dropped and played one after the other, I loved playing along with the songs. Also, my dad and my grandfathers were all blacksmiths. They weren’t drummers, but without a relaxed stroke, they wouldn’t last very long as a blacksmith. You wouldn’t have an elbow. When you watch a blacksmith, they let that hammer bounce. They don’t go boom.”

Wilson had reached the Purchase campus, and it was time to wrap up. Before exiting the car, he mentioned that, earlier in the morning, one of his 22-year-old triplet sons had found a photograph of Lederer’s daughter holding him in August 2001, with Lederer holding her. “There’s a lot of connection over the years,” Wilson mused. “One day when Jeff and I were in Galesburg, I said, ‘The reason that we all came together is because of sound.’ All the people in all the bands, who come from all over the world, all kinds of different situations — we’ve all come together because of sound and this music.

“That’s powerful. I think, ‘Damn — these relationships.’” DB

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