- Chris Hovan
- Cult of personalities: Wilson's chameleon-like character endears him to more than just jazz heads.
The world thrives on order and categorization. Single or married, Democrat or Republican, each of us is pigeonholed into general and more specific categories, and music is certainly no different. The antithesis of this impulse to compartmentalize is embodied by jazz drummer Matt Wilson -- a dexterous, multifaceted player who has established himself not only through sheer talent, but through a natural tendency to see music as one continuous cloth of various shades and hues.
As a result, Wilson has positioned himself as one of the most flexible and inventive modern jazz drummers, a forward-thinking musician not afraid to attempt to push the bounds of the genre into folk and other styles. Beginning with his near-classic 1996 debut, As Wave Follows Wave, Wilson has made a name for himself as one of jazz's most eclectic and exciting performers -- a hard-earned rep that he's built upon for years.
A child of the '70s and '80s, Wilson naturally gravitated toward artistic endeavors at an early age. "My brother played saxophone, and so we would play duets," he says, speaking by phone from his home in upstate New York. "We would buy sheet music a lot and these books, like Hit Songs of 1973, and then provide the entertainment for PTA and 4-H meetings and that kind of thing." A serious Herb Alpert aficionado at this early stage, he adds, "We would kind of improvise, and I did that with a snare drum and a cheap tin cymbal; I didn't actually get a drum set until I was in junior high."
Music continued to be an outlet for Wilson, now 38, throughout his high school years and in college at Wichita State, where he met his wife. He headed to Boston in 1987, where he honed his skills with artists such as the Either Orchestra, Charlie Kohlhase, Dominique Eade, and John Medeski. For the past 10 years, Wilson has made his home in New York, where he's diversified his horizons and become somewhat of a household name among the downtown crowd. "When you're a kid, you come to New York, and you go to the [Village] Vanguard and you see music and you're thinking, 'Man, if I could play here someday . . .,'" Wilson recalls. "Now I do, and I'm very grateful that I get to do this kind of stuff."
Not only did Wilson's musical proficiency perk up ears upon his arrival in the Big Apple, but Wilson's chameleon-like character endeared him to more than just jazz heads: In any given week, he covers a lot of ground -- in terms of the kind of work he does and who he does it with. "I played [recently] at the National Cathedral, with Eugene Friesen playing cello and poet Coleman Barks reading Rumi poetry; then I play with [singer-pianist] Dena DeRose, then my band does its thing, and so I see it all as one big thing," Wilson says without a hint of pretense. "You're basically all there to discover that same thing: that magic that's there when you play music together, whether it's with a Rumi poet or with a singer or whatever."
Matt and his wife, a violinist and schoolteacher, approach their own listening tastes with the same love of variety, as evidenced by what's currently in heavy rotation at the Wilson house. "One of the most powerful things I've purchased in a long time is this new Johnny Cash record called The Man Comes Around. I'm really drawn to any kind of folk music; I mean, I think jazz is folk music, basically," he says. "I think anything that is real simple and says something without a lot of hoopla gets me, so I really consider Ornette [Coleman's] music to be folk music."
Now on tour in support of his fifth album, Humidity, Wilson is putting his working band through the paces -- something he's reveled in since forming the Matt Wilson Quartet in 1996. With the saxophones of Andrew D'Angelo and Jeff Lederer on the front line, along with bassist Yosuke Inoue, the pianoless ensemble strives for a very open sound with roots in the avant-garde. In fact, pieces like "Swimming in the Trees" and "Free Willy" recall Ornette Coleman's late '60s Blue Note records with Dewey Redman -- a point not lost on Wilson. "I've heard that sound, because I've lived it for eight years in playing with Dewey all that time," Wilson says, recalling his collaborations with the tenor sax great. "That's why I still like swing; I love to play that beat -- but then I'm drawn to funk and no time too."
Even with the success of his most recent project, Wilson sees new ventures on the horizon; he's restless in a way that keeps him anticipating the next thing -- an attitude that's also practical, when one considers that he has a wife, a house, and four kids. "The next record that I'm gearing up for is music that I've written to Carl Sandburg poetry," says Wilson. "But I really want to do a record with a singer playing guitar -- not a jazz person, necessarily -- but a folk-type player with an improvisational spirit. I'd love to have Pete Seeger or Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson sing one of my songs," he says, finishing with a thought that nicely summarizes his diverse approach. "I'm pretty happy when I'm playing music, no matter what it is."