Drummer Matt Wilson Has A Mantra: Jazz Is Not Boring!

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Jazz drummer Matt Wilson. (Courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz).
Jazz drummer Matt Wilson. (Courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz).

Vanity Fair dubbed Grammy Award-winning drummer Matt Wilson and his quartet “the essence of Jazz.” Others call him an ambassador, and he certainly has a personal mission.

The percussionist has spent his career fighting the idea that jazz is “boring” — and he’s not alone. Wilson’s new CD, "Gathering Call,” features keyboard star John Medeski, of the trio Medeski Martin & Wood.

Wilson and Medeski played together in Boston more than 20 years ago. They returned last week for a gig at Scullers Jazz Club, where I caught up with them.

Avoiding The 'Trough Of Blah'

To give you an idea of what Matt Wilson is like, take a gander at his YouTube video for a piece titled “Martha the Juicer”:

Yes, Wilson is accompanied by a juice machine, and yes, he downs the freshly extracted liquid at the end of the tune. The 48-year-old New York-based drummer has also used bubble machines and toys on stage as props. During the set at Scullers, Wilson and his four bandmates pull out colorfully painted bells.

“I think part of it is to disarm people a little bit,” Wilson mused, adding that it’s also a way to get an audience’s attention. He wants to stoke curiosity to ultimately get a reaction.

“I’d rather have somebody not like it than walk away and go, ‘eh,’" Wilson said. "To me there’s just so much that’s down the middle trough — what I call ‘the trough of blah.'”

Wilson and other jazz musicians have been fighting to stay out of this so-called "trough of blah" for years.

“Yes!” Russ Gershon said, agreeing with a laugh. “And I’ve always been right with him on that.”

Gershon has been leading Boston’s Either/Orchestra for 28 years. He remembers what made Wilson stand out back in the 1980s, when Gershon enlisted Wilson to be his big band’s percussionist.

“He grew up in the Midwest, in western Illinois. He’s a true country boy,” Gershon explained. “And Matt had been gigging, I believe, since he was about 12. So he had been playing out in country bars and barn dances and had a good sense for how to entertain people who weren’t hardcore, big city jazz aficionados.”

Wilson’s knack for being a “regular guy” and not some pretentious, East Coast hepcat was an asset for Gershon because the Either/Orchestra was touring smaller cities across the country.

“On the one hand, he’s a really great jazz drummer. I mean he swings his tail off and he can lay it down as hard as anybody,” Gershon said. “He delivers the goods on that level. On the other hand, he’s a total goofball!”

On stage, Wilson talks freely to the people in the audience. Their ages skew above 40, with a few younger folks here and there. In between songs the percussionist referred to the tractor days of his youth in Illinois, and he plugged the quartet’s new CD without being cheesy or pushy.

“It was just released a week ago yesterday, and boy they’re just selling like crazy!” he joked with his sweet brand of sarcasm.

Gershon said Wilson makes people feel comfortable with a technical genre of music that can be rather lofty.

Then there’s keyboardist John Medeski of the avant-jazz-funk trio Medeski Martin & Wood. Gershon played with him in the Either/Ochestra too, and calls Medeski a “human octopus” and a “Swiss Army knife” in the rhythm section.

“He’s a like a great martial arts master,” Gershon elaborated. "It’s fun to see them playing together again.”

“Chemistry is chemistry,” Medeski replied when asked about playing with Wilson again. “Certain things just work together and have a certain relationship.”

Just like the ingredients in a classic recipe, he continued, explaining how they might change a bit — organic or not, for instance — but they still complement and bring out the best in each other. With a laugh, Medeski agreed with the idea he and Wilson are both jazz warriors fighting the good fight.

“I’ve been in my own version of that fight, you know, for pretty much my whole career!” he said. “You know, we’ve gone about it in a different way with Medeski Martin & Wood, but still we try to bring a certain spirit that jazz has to people who might have that misconception that jazz is boring, or that they’re not going to understand it. It can be deep, it can be hilarious or it can be all of those things at once.”

John Medeski (Michael Bloom/Courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz)
Braithwaite & Katz)

Medeski and Wilson haven’t recorded together for 20 years, but it only took one day to lay down their new CD. Tracks include “Main Stem” by Duke Ellington, a bunch of Wilson’s original compositions and a pop tune that even surprised Medeski in the studio: Beyonce’s “If I Were A Boy.”

“It was really beautiful,” Medeski recalled thinking, “Wow, man, this is really deep! It’s poppy, yet jazzy.”

Both Medeski and Boston Globe music writer Jon Garelick acknowledged the trend for jazz musicians to cover pop and jazz tunes, but Garelick said this version is delivered without irony. “It’s just a beautiful rendition of this tune that they bring their imagination to — so it’s great,” he said.

Garelick has been following these guys since the beginning and said the way they play their jazz is the opposite of boring.

“Both Matt and John respond to what’s going on around them very spontaneously," he said. "They feed it back — and the audience senses that.”

The audience at Scullers sure seemed to eat it up. At the end of the show, the quartet invited two young women saxophonists to jam with them on stage — Sarah Hughes of the New England Conservatory and Berklee College of Music student Allie Burik.

Matt Wilson’s Quartet heads to the Midwest this week — without Medeski, though. But have faith: The drummer and piano player will continue their campaigns for jazz because they say that’s just what they do.

Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



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