For those who’ve been taking an extended nap, drummer Matt Wilson has been establishing himself as, in the words of serious-minded critics, an exciting presence on the American scene. Whether he’s tapping the tubs for big daddies such as Dewey Redman, Lee Konitz, and Denny Zeitlin or leading a couple of very different but engaging quartets, Illinois-bred drummer/leader/composer Wilson is indeed a major contender.
How? Why? The answer lay on a cold, rain, snow, and sleet-laden evening in Chicago, as Wilson’s Arts & Crafts Quartet gave a bravura performance at Symphony Space. Wilson’s 4tet: Terrell Stafford, trumpet; Dennis Irwin, acoustic bass; Larry Goldings, piano & Hammond organ. They’re not only super-fine players, but function fabulously as a unit, a true band, not a collection of soloists. The band’s repertoire (mostly Wilson originals, a couple of inspired covers) and approach straddles hard-swinging, immediate hard bop with a soul-jazz flavor with more edgy (read: "free") sorties. Structurally it was theme/solos/theme, but injected with humor, invention, and wit, free of predictability. Each musician got a chance to shine, but avoided "never-ending solo syndrome." (So many musicians stricken...sad.)
Stafford was/is a marvel. He possesses the forthright brassiness of Hubbard and Shaw, but also draws upon the pre-bop vocabulary of Louis Armstrong and the Duke’s Men (as in Ellington). His juxtaposition of post-bop wail ‘n’ soar with well-placed growls and blats was exhilarating. Irwin was a solid, almost "old-fashioned" presence with no "virtuoso" show of chops...just some sturdy, confident whomp and active bottom to anchor and provide impetus to the proceedings. Goldings was a surging, two-handed marvel on piano (a bit like McCoy Tyner in his percussive moments). He has a rich, fleet bebop approach to the organ, with a nice soul-glaze to it (more Larry Young than Jimmy McGriff). Wilson is the leader, true, but had no more solo space than anybody else. When he did solo, he played the whole kit, not just the "loud" drums. He played with not only sticks, but with both ends of the brushes, fingertips, whatever and without slipping into "look what I can do" shtick, while always maintaining a sense of rhythm (explicitly or implicitly). The crowd dug it all big-time. A neat trick, this creative jazz that pulls the listener in by showing him/her a grand ol’ time, rather than hitting the listener over the head with self-satisfied "artistic expression."