Though I was not familiar with Sarah Wilson when the CD arrived, I was inclined to think that “Trapeze Project” was going to be a great listening experience based on her backing band alone. Pianist Myra Melford is – for my money – simply one of the most fascinating musicians out there. As graceful as ever in a backing role, she works beautifully alongside with Harris and Amendola to form an incredibly potent rhythm section. Clarinetist Ben Goldberg is similarly accomplished – I've been following his career with great interest ever since he released a incredible duo CD titled “The Relative Value of Things” with drummer Kenny Wolleson (another Wilson associate) back in '92. The group handles Wilson's winsome original compositions with poise and inspiration. This is important, since Wilson doesn't write out of a pre-conceived 'jazz' bag. Instead, she draws on a number of sources in addition to modern jazz to craft her individualistic music. Wilson's writing touches on diverse elements of art-rock, Americana, 20th Century Classical music, gospel (check out Melford's piano solo on 'At Zebulon'), South African highlife, New Orleans second line, and klezmer, to name a few. The closest parallels to Wilson's approach would be polystylistic small groups such Tin Hat, Bill Frisell's Intercontinentals, or perhaps those led by clarinetist Andy Biskin and violinist Jenny Scheinmann. A lot of the pieces here make reference to New Orleans-styled Second Line rhythms - not in a literal sense, but the bobbing polyrhythms that drive 'At Zebulon,' 'Blessing,' and 'To New Orleans' clearly have deep roots in that distinctive rhythmic feel. African rhythms, specifically the sorts of Township grooves that I associate with the work of Abdullah Ibrahim, provide a contrasting architecture for the eerie, haunting melody on 'In Resonance Light Takes Place.' The more jazz-oriented pieces, such as 'Possibility,' 'Himalayas,' and 'Underneath The Soil' have a strong forward motion with melodies that are both tuneful and whimsical in an Ornette-ish sort of way, though I don't think Wilson's aim was to sound like Ornette.
Wilson's trumpet playing is clear and simple, vibrato-less and with an almost classical-sounding articulation. Though she's clearly up to the task as a soloist / improvisor, Wilson leaves most of the soloing to Melford and Goldberg - both true virtuosos on their respective instruments. Her vocal style – on display here on 'Melancholy for Place,' 'From The River,' and 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' – is surprisingly similar to her trumpet playing. Wilson has an almost 'non-jazz' approach to singing. Articulating every word carefully in an unschooled-sounding (yet always spot-on in terms of intonation) singer / songwriter's voice, Wilson achieves an intimacy that is direct and has an immediate emotional impact. When she sings, it's almost as it she's speaking directly to the listener. This frank, no-frills approach is almost unsettling on her chilling rendition of Joy Division's 'Love Will Tear Us Apart.' Here, she's more vulnerable, more emotionally naked than a dozen caterwauling Mariah Carey sound-alikes could ever be!