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Steve Wilson at Clarice Smith Performance Center

Steve Wilson Steve Wilson
Ever since its opening in 2001, The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, has developed a unique program that, in their words, "fully integrates the University's academic performing arts departments into its programming. This commitment to creative collaboration, uncommon among university presenters . . ." includes programs for the departments of music, theater, and dance, bringing in performers for workshops and seminars, as well as for their performances in the center's six performance spaces.

So it was that saxophonist Steve Wilson spent March 9 - 12 a the Center. He conducted workshops on improvisation, and the business of music, spoke to the ethnomusicology class about jazz history within the context of American history, and worked with various jazz ensembles including the University Jazz ensemble -- directed by his old friend Chris Vadala, who is the head of the UMCP Jazz Dept. Wilson joined the ensemble Wednesday evening for a performance of his composition "A Joyful Noise."

The culmination of Wilson's visit came on Thursday when Wilson presented his own quartet in an evening of his own compositions, laced with some welcome nods to jazz history. It was a refreshing evening for a somewhat jaded critic.

It has been my practice, and the policy at to avoid negative reviews: if I don't like something I simply don't review it. I have attended a number of concerts really for which I have not posted a review. There have been some jazz icons who just aren't doing the business, some younger players whose careers have generated a level of hype that is off the scale. Steve Wilson, on the other hand, is the real deal, what my good friend, the late John Stevens, used to call an "honest" musician. Everything he offered on this evening was infused with professionalism, passion, humility, and--dare I say it--taste.

The first set began with Wilson's "The Epicurean," a blues-based theme set over vamp-like figures. Wilson's compositions have a "why didn't I think of that?" quality, until they take a sudden "I wouldn't have thought of that!" twist. His improvisations revealed his background. He studied with Jimmy and Percy Heath, Jon Hendricks, Jaki Byard, John Hicks, Frank Foster and Ellis Marsalis. He has worked with George Duke, Dianne Reeves, Bill Bruford, Gerald Wilson,, Joe Henderson, Charlie Byrd, Billy Childs, Karrin Allyson, Don Byron, Bill Stewart, James Williams, and Mulgrew Miller, so he is grounded in the jazz mainstream. He has also worked with Chick Corea, Michael Brecker, Dave Holland, and Maria Schneider, a generation of post-Coltrane artists who have moved that mainstream into the present. Wilson has moved along that path; his time with Corea and Holland is particularly evident in both his playing and his writing. Corea once described him as: "a complete lyricist and adventurer as an improviser. . . He interprets my compositions as I would have myself if I played his horns." That about sums it up. Wilson also knows exactly what the alto saxophone is about. Brecker notwithstanding, it is not just a smaller tenor saxophone; it works when it is given its own voice. Wilson does just that.

For the next piece, "David's Dance," Wilson went on to show his prowess on the soprano saxophone, a notoriously difficult instrument that he controls beautifully. His composition, commissioned by the performing arts center in Dayton, Ohio, showed Holland's influence in particular, with quasi-backbeat drum figures overlaid with abstract melodic lines that built in intensity over the course of the piece,

To accompany him for the rest of the first half, Wilson now brought out a string quartet made up of UMCP students. They played three pieces, two of them, "April In Paris" and "East of the Sun," reprising Charlie Parker's famous Bird With Strings sessions from 1950-52. Here Wilson subtly altered his phrasing to invoke Parker while still being Wilson. Sandwiched between these items was a composition by Jonathan Ragonese, one of Steve's students from the Manhattan School of Music, who was on hand to hear his piece, "You And I Must Part," premiered. It featured some fine string writing blending with Wilson's effusive alto

The second half was as strong as the first. A small group version of "A Joyful Noise" with Steve's soprano at its most Tranish was followed by a gorgeous balled named simply "Grace." This led into "In Our Time," a post-Coltrane tone-poem depicting the trials, tribulations and triumphs of recent history. A tour-de-force, unaccompanied alto solo led into a boppish, up tempo finale to a highly satisfying evening. As for the week, it was a model that I hope the university continues and many other music departments copy.

Article by Peter Westbrook - Copyright 2009

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Steve Wilson
  • Concert Date: 3/12/2009
  • Subtitle: Four Day Visit to University of Maryland Includes Concert and Workshops
  • City State Country: College Park, MD
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