Anticipation was running high and the energy level was palpable, as when the hair on the back of your neck deifies gravity if you stand below a high voltage power line, for drummer Matt Wilson's performance with his Arts & Crafts band at Tri-C's Black Box Theatre.
In today's high-tech world, not many bands still utilize a real Hammond B-3 organ (still considered to be an 800 pound gorilla) but this classic sound is integral to Gary Versace's repertoire and so he began the opening tune "Little Boy With The Sad Eyes" with deeply soulful playing from the whirling speakers. The rest of the band, trumpeter Terell Stafford, bassist Martin Wind and Wilson, followed, diving headlong into the martial, thematic melody. Stafford, a dynamic player who has never been shy on the bandstand, took a solo that was so hot and forceful that the attendees in the first three rows could have had their hair blow dried. Elsewhere, he employed the enveloping warmth of the flugelhorn, as on what Wilson called the set's love song, "Cruise Blues."
In fact, should Wilson ever decide to stop playing, and let's hope that that day never arrives, he could easily make a living as a stand-up comic. Evoking abundant laughs, his raillery between tunes conveyed a razor sharp wit that is evidenced in sly ways within his compositions and playing without demeaning the music to mere comedy performance. Indeed, this music was deadly serious. Stretching the gamut from the Balkan-esque melody of "Bubbles" and its poetry recitation to the plaintive "Happy Days Are Here Again" this band came to play.
Arguably, Wilson is the most melodic drummer on today's scene. Whether playing the skins with his hands and the drum shells and the stands with his sticks, all while blowing a wooden flute or shaking a cluster of bells and Tibetan cymbals or accenting a tune with crash cymbal splashes, calling Wilson a drummer is like referring to Mario Andretti as a car driver. Whitney Balliet famously called jazz "the sound of surprise" and Wilson was the embodiment of this perspective throughout the set. Frequently raising his eyebrows and smiling or eliciting an audible "whoa!" he responded to each and every surprise from his band mates.
These delights came in the form of Versace's impressive, simultaneous playing of the Steinway and B-3, where his arms were stretched in rival anything that Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada could have employed. They also came in the form of a bass solo from Wind that conveyed exceptional longing and Stafford's tone that was as sweet and smooth as butterscotch sundae topping on "Happy Days."
Playing a small cymbal that was laying on the head of his floor tom, which produced a non-resonating "broken" sound, Wilson relentlessly, yet loosely, impelled the band through a jaunty rendition of "Poster Boy" where the sound Versace's piano and Stafford's trumpet coagulated like two coats of paint. Wind was featured late in the set, where he was given the unenviable task of laying down the driving bass line of Jaco Pastorius' "Teen Town." In a respectful nod to Cleveland, the set also included a two-song medley of "Our Prayer/Rejoicing" written by hometown, avant-garde hero Albert Ayler. The set-ending tune "Feel The Sway" had the entire audience on their feet and at the band's urging, we all felt each and every resplendent note. I, for one, left like a drunken sailor on shore leave from this intoxicating music.