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Interview: Matt Wilson

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by Andrew Patton on January 9, 2017

The Matt Wilson Quartet, with Matt Wilson on drums, Martin Wind on bass, Jeff Lederer on tenor sax and clarinet, and Kirk Knuffke on cornet, plays two shows at Notes on Thursday, January 19th, at 7 and 9pm. More info and tickets are available here for the next exciting show in the new Jazz Arts Group Presents Series. Wilson (at left in the picture) will also be featured in the next installment of JAG’s series of Offstage at the Academy workshops, Wednesday, January 18th, at 7pm at the Jazz Academy, located on the 4th floor of the Lincoln Theatre building. More details on this free workshop are available here. Wilson was kind enough to chat with me about the quartet and other projects, jazz education, and the state of jazz in general. Keep reading to learn more from this acclaimed drummer and educator.

Matt, I hear you’re heading out of the country soon. What’s on your agenda?

Matt Wilson (MW): I’m going to South America. I’m going to Uruguay [on the 3rd] for a week or so with Ken Peplowski, then the quartet plays Santiago, Chile right after that. The afternoon we get back from there, we go in the studio and record four tunes for a [Sidney] Bechet tribute compilation that we go to Paris to celebrate in February, and then I come up to Columbus. So it’s kind of a whirlwind, but it’ll be fun.

What do you enjoy about playing live with the Matt Wilson Quartet?

MW: We’ve been playing for a long time and, while it’s obviously given that they’re really great musicians, they’re amazing at playing together. The band sound is really fun. The real sharing of sound, I think, is really fantastic. There’s a lot of different kinds of material within it, ranging from different things. Everybody is always courageous and brave in trying any which way. And they’re all very generous performers, I really appreciate that. They’re very giving to each other and also to the audience. It’s fun to have it be that way.

We were just in Europe for a stretch and it was tremendous. A little over a month ago, we played a festival in Portugal and a couple nights in London and they were just stellar – a band playing really well together. We have such a family aspect of it too. Martin Wind is joining us for this trip, [usual bassist Chris] Lightcap is not with us. But Martin plays with us a lot, so we welcome him and he knows the music, so we just have him play it the way he plays it and we just adjust, and it’s always great.

Since you’re between albums for the quartet, what are you planning on playing in Columbus?

MW: We have a lot of new things we’ve been playing. We just did that trip to Europe, and we played Dizzy’s at Jazz at Lincoln Center in October, so we played a bunch of new music there. It’s been a while since we’ve been in Columbus – I’ve got some new things, and we’ve been revisiting some older stuff that we haven’t played for a while, and then covering some things. We’ve been playing this Freddie Redd tune that we really like, and a Randy Weston tune, so we’ll probably have a chance to try certain things out. It’ll be fun – some things of Kirk’s [Knuffke] too. Maybe we’ll play one of these Bechet things that we will have recorded too – we’ll pick out one we like.

I really enjoyed 2016’s Matt Wilson’s Big Happy Family: Beginning of A Memory album. What else do you have in the works?

MW: Thank you. We were very pleased with the response. There’s been some interest from people in Europe in wanting me to bring as many of those people as I can get together at once to come over [to play Big Happy Family shows] too. It will be nice to see if that can happen, maybe next fall. I’m just finishing up a new record that will come out in the fall that I’m very proud of. It’s all music I’ve written to Carl Sandburg poetry. It’s a band with Martin [Wind], Jeff [Lederer], the cornetist Ron Miles, and guitarist and vocalist Don Thompson. We’ve been doing this for quite a while, but finally got a chance to get it recorded. In October we laid down the band tracks and then I have a bunch of guest readers for the record: Carla Bley, John Scofield, Christian McBride, Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell, and Jack Black actually did one, it’s really great. It’s quite a project, and it’s turning out to be something else. My daughter sings some background vocals on it too. That’s about ready to be mixed – we have a few things to assemble. So I’m really excited about that. We’re doing the Chicago Jazz Festival with that, and some other dates in the fall, but probably a lot of touring in the spring of 2018 for that, so I’m looking forward to it.

I’ve always got something going – I have to. I did a lot of really fun record dates this year, and a lot of them that came out this year too did very, very well. I’m very happy about the new Charlie Haden record, Ken Peplowski’s record, some stuff of Jeff’s [Lederer], Dena DeRose’s record did really well, and a bunch of other ones. It’s nice to be busy like that.

How did you conceptualize Beginning of a Memory with the larger band as opposed to smaller groups like the Quartet?

MW: There were no arrangements really, it was just lead sheets and those musicians creating those parts. I got eight people there to do the initial [recording], which was all the horns, Paul Sikivie, and Martin. Then [Gary] Versace overdubbed parts and so did Chris Lightcap, and then Larry Goldings sent in a solo piano piece from the West Coast, and Yosuke Inoue sent a solo from Japan to have on “Go Team Go.”

I love both. When we do that live, we use the music from another group I have, some of that music is adaptable and hasn’t been recorded yet. So we use some of that music to fill it out, but I really like the feeling of the reactionary aspect. When we did that gig in the fall at Dizzy’s, it was incredible. It was really astonishing to have the reaction be there, and parts being created in the moment. I liked it that way. It’s not a preferred way, I don’t think, it’s just an alternative way. Ways are important. Everybody had played some of the songs, and only some had played them with certain bands, and had to react, so it was kind of a combination. It was fun. Some of the tunes I do in both Arts and Crafts and in the Quartet. Some of them were tunes that only a few had played all that often. It was nice to figure out what tunes to have Chris Lightcap or Gary Versace to come in and put stuff on top of afterwards.

This new record is pretty involved. I think the next one I’ll do will be simple: Go in, play some songs, be done. But I’m very excited about this poetry one, I think it will be very interesting. A nice departure. It’s fun to take some serious chances and try some different things.

I know that education is a big element of your career, including leading workshops around the world. What is it like to teach children, especially in other countries?

MW: I enjoy it very much. Maybe I approach things slightly differently, or just ways that I know of, and just try to empower them to have imaginations, and to play, and be inspired to work on things. I want to feed that, rather than work on a lot of technical things. You need to have a good physical relationship with your instrument too, we always address those aspects of it, but I feel that’s something that’s more for when I have my one-on-one students that I see often, privately. For me, it’s about letting them go, let them write, let them come up with stuff, really find out what the potentials are for themselves with their imagination and creativity and give them the opportunity to explore that.

Young folks can really write, and they have great ideas. I’m a big believer in the knowledge and history of the music and all that too, but sometimes I think we wait too long to allow them to find out what they’re saying. They gotta start figuring out what they’re saying too, so I want there to be a good balance. And for them to use their knowledge of the masters to want do that, and know that [the master’s] spirits are there to encourage them. So I believe that’s an important facet of it. And also challenge them. Get out there. Learn things. Let’s open up ideas to be even more curious. Try it. Nobody gets hurt playing music, so if you try something and it doesn’t work, try something else. Just keep trying things and see what happens.

I enjoy it very much. I get to work at the different schools that I’m at, and a school in Europe that I teach at, and the workshop world. Each of them present new challenges. I don’t have a routine, I don’t have a set thing that I do. You go in for what the situation is. And that day is that day of improvising. Another day is another day. These guys [in the quartet] are also really great teachers, so it’s really fun to be inspired by their ideas. A lot of my colleagues are all fantastic teachers. Terell Stafford, Gary Versace, Lightcap, all of the guys – Kirk, Jeff. Jeff is really a gem at it. I always tell people, “Teach what you know. You can’t go in and fake anything. This is how you do this, so do that.” And other people will feel more comfortable with very technical aspects of things, and that’s great too. To me, as long as they offer it in a welcoming and clear way, so it inspires the student and doesn’t bog them down. There’s just different ways.

I try to open up doors and liberate, and encourage students that the answer is “yes,” if it’s legal. Meaning: try things, do things, explore. Our own inner voices sometimes prevent that. The older I get, and with the experiences I’ve had in my life, both positive and some very sad things, I don’t hold back anymore. That’s why Big Happy Family: Beginning of a Memory came around, that’s why the Sandburg thing came around, just really going for it. Other aspects of things, the Christmas Tree-O, all these things – why not? And if you break some rules, people remember people that break rules. People don’t remember people that follow rules. So we want to get out there and try different things. Jazz sometimes has gotten a little safe or unimaginative to me a little bit. And I’m not judging, just making a statement. But I mean, there are some people who are so imaginative with what they do, and we all have that in us. Young folks too, that’s why you gotta unleash them, and there’s some results that can really be inspiring. Get some kids writing and coming up with ideas – something I wouldn’t come up with because of their age and their experiences.

I guess my thing in a nutshell is promoting what jazz can be for them, not what it should be. And I know we all have our opinions [on what jazz is], and “it should swing,” and I believe in all of that too. But they’ll learn that if they know they’re part of a canon of “a music of exploration,” and “a music of trying things,” and not “a years of working on this and learning this and learning this so eventually someday you can find what you want to do.” For some people it takes a while, and some people have ideas right off the bat. Why should we put a governor on those? Because they need to know more? “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” that’s what Albert Einstein said, and I think it’s true. I think it’s great to foster both, but if you have knowledge that’s inspired by imagination and curiosity, then it’s even better. You can tell people to listen to records all you want. If they’re not inspired, they’re not going to listen. But if you play the music, then they get to play the music and get to explore and meet and hear those artists, then they’re going to be more curious about checking out things. A good balance – I like playing and I like teaching. I really think they feed each other.

Anything else you’d like to say to people in Columbus thinking about checking out your show?

MW: I’m big about community, so I talk about Columbus, I talk about these towns where they’re not listening to what people are saying about what people don’t like, there’s just people out there moving and shaking and getting it going. I think that’s what we have to do too. We have to find people in the community and say that people do want to hear [jazz], and there’s myriad ways of offering it too. If you’re honest with what you do, that’s the most important thing. That’s what I love about these guys, they’re just very honest musicians. People know what they’re getting. At this point in my life, I’m not too interested in tribute things. I like playing other people’s music, but you can wrap it all up into one thing. I’m not putting that down, that’s just my interest. I feel like for me, we should get it out there.

There’s so many great musicians around town that are doing that: Pete Mills, Michael Cox, Stan Smith, I don’t want to leave anybody out. Jim Rupp, one of the greatest drummers in America. Bob Breithaupt and all the folks at Jazz Arts Group, Zach Compston – he’s amazing! These cats swing, and they’re not sitting around complaining about the music, they’re doing something about it. Zach is a spearhead of that – he’s a great drummer, and he’s doing something about it at the same time. With people like Pete and Bob and Byron Stripling there, it’s fantastic. If every town that size had that kind of organization, it would be great! But people sit around and say, “That isn’t jazz, and this isn’t…” Well, whatever. Get out there and do something. Somebody’s going out and doing something. People can have opinions, you don’t have to like everything. But you do have to respect what people are doing, especially if they’re working hard at it and trying something. I appreciate that about Zach and Bob and all the staff at JAG, and all of the great people around Columbus.

There’s rich musical histories in all of these towns. We often forsake those sometimes, but these towns have legacies, and great musicians that are still there, and great musicians that have emerged from there, and great musicians that were born there. I think it’s really healthy to recognize those. What I do anymore is try to be interactive with the community of musicians there too. OK, we do live in New York or whatever, but who really cares? We just chose to come here, but it doesn’t make us any better musicians or more creative, I don’t buy any of that. So when we go places, I love hearing stuff and being involved with the people that are playing there and doing all kinds of things. I love that! I think that empowers them too. These places are all very important.

Ohio’s strong. Cleveland, Dayton, Columbus, Cincinnati, Akron, there’s all kinds of stuff going on, it’s great. When we were in Dayton last February doing something, I think Dave Douglas was playing somewhere in the state, and Frisell was playing somewhere in the state too, or maybe Indiana, on a Tuesday or Thursday night! We were all in this zone. You know, I think the music is doing pretty well. We’re finding listeners, and it’s a great scene. I think it’s very strong. Regional scenes are very important. When there’s a good regional scene, then the knowledge, or appreciation, of the music is deeper, and when things do come through, it helps all around.

We’re all part of the same community. If you’re interested in this music, you’re part of the family. That’s what I tell my students: “You’re at a workshop, you’re interested in it. You’re part of it now. You’re getting entry into the club, you’re in the family.” There’s joys, rewards, and also responsibility, of working hard for the music and helping out. I find that extremely inspiring, extremely motivating to have that happen. This week I’ll be [in South America], then I’m in Columbus, then I’m doing the Missouri All-State Band. Whatever it is, I’m there to do as much for the music as possible. And I have a lot of great mentors in that department, so I appreciate them too, people I really admire. People that are great at helping the music. Not sitting around and complaining about it, but getting out and doing something about it, I admire those folks.

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