Can less ever be more? Well, according to jazz guitarist and composer, Anthony Wilson the answer can sometimes be yes. He spoke about the necessity of learning to become an uncomplicated writer while discussing his Power of Nine CD featuring the Anthony Wilson Nonet.
"I think what separates this CD (Power Of Nine) from anything I did before is I am trying a little less hard. As I grow up and become a bit more comfortable with my own voice and what I have to contribute as a player and as a writer, I feel less like I have to try so hard to get certain things into arrangements," Wilson says explaining the approach he took with his most recent album. "I feel much more confident to leave something out or to bring it into the musicians and discuss how we will play it. I have become one of those writers who feel I don’t have to write a lot and it can still be beautiful."
"The idea of writing is not to show that you are a good writer. It was an important lesson for me to learn," he says. Wilson notes that too many writers are caught up with writing extremely complex pieces and in the process, sacrifice some of their creativity.
Wilson draws a great deal of his inspiration from Duke Ellington and Gil Evans. Wilson feels some of today’s jazz writers significantly limit the contributions their soloists can make to the music. In contrast he says Ellington and Evans, "Relied on their musicians to bring the music in. They did not feel it was their job to bombard you with their personality. They didn’t want to drown you with ‘look at me.’ They were not trying to draw attention to themselves. That’s not the purpose of the whole thing (writing)."
"For me, writing is allowing the musical idea to speak for itself. I think if I did accomplish something (on Power Of Nine) it may have been (in the area of) trying less. I put the ideas out there and let them have lives of their own without cluttering up the writing with too much stuff," Wilson explains.
Wilson’s comments led us into a brief discussion concerning improvisation’s place in jazz music. "I definitely have a fondness for improvisation. I would go even further and say without quite a bit of improvisation, I am not satisfied. With my own band, I want to hear guys improvising from the first bar of a song. It is different than the way some people approach music, but I love it (improvisation)," he says. Wilson tells me that one of the things he enjoys when listening to the music of Ellington and Evans is the degree to which they integrated into their compositions the element of improvisation.
Wilson says that in particular during his live performances, he will often turn to the other musicians and say, "Let’s not do it the way we did it last night. Let’s try this. The spirit of surprise is inspiring to me."
Inspiration and connecting are words that keep popping up in Wilson’s carefully measured words. They are words that he uses to describe working with Diana Krall as a sideman and her appearance as a vocalist on Power Of Nine. Krall lent her voice to the Jimmy Rowles song "Looking Back." Referring to Krall as the ultimate artist he says, "She completely cares about music and the songs that she sings. She cares about having a great relationship with the players. She is a very hard worker and is very inspired. She gives more than one hundred percent."
Continuing to enthuse about Krall, Wilson says, "She is one of the best performers that I have ever seen. She is one of those singers who bring a connection to the song that allows me a way in when I am playing with her. I know what she is looking for in the song. The connection is absolute."
Producer Joe Harley, Wilson and Krall all have connections to legendary jazz songwriter and pianist Jimmy Rowles. Wilson lists Rowles as one of his favorite artists, while Krall studied with the pianist/songwriter. Harley’s connection, however, is the most interesting. While Wilson and Krall were settling on a Rowles’ song to include on the album, they were unaware of Harley’s connection with the jazz great. Ten years earlier and just a short time before his death, the Rowles had given Harley a recording of and the sheet music for "Looking Back." You can understand Krall and Wilson’s surprise when that information became known after they had suggested the song as one of the tracks for Power Of Nine.
"I don’t feel there are coincidences. There is obviously some reason why this song came to the three of us," says Wilson, "It just felt really right. It was something that she (Krall) could feel personally connected to. It is a song about growing up and (your roots)."
Wilson feels that despite the fact Krall lives in New York City, she retains a close bond to her native Vancouver Island on Canada’s west coast. It is that bond and that remembrance of her youth that Wilson feels makes her the ideal songstress for this piece.
Wilson describes "Looking Back" as a reflective piece with deep blue hues. "I wanted to surround her (Krall) voice with a sensual color, something that is filled with sadness and deep reflection. The lyrics have to do with a person who is looking back at a place where they grew up. You have this imagery of leaving the windows open so the air can come through the screens," he says.
"Looking Back" however is not all about joyous youthful memories. "The music turns when you get into the bridge and the lyric changes. The person remembers that they left that home, lost their way and experienced disappointment. The individual can’t go back. It (the song) is full of emotion. There is a sense of darkness," says Wilson. He describes the tune as one where the singer reflects fondly upon the idyllic days of her youth, realizing not all her choices in life were great. The singer, however, will always have the sweet memories of another time and place.
While much of the music for "Looking Back" is performed in a minor key, Wilson changes the texture and mood of the song by ending with a triumphant sound. He utilizes a major key and more volume to achieve his goal.
Reverting back to our original conversation concerning an artist’s connection to a song, Wilson says truly great singers ask questions such as, why did the composer write this piece or why was this music important to the songwriter? It is through asking such questions that the artist is able to make the song more personable. The singer must be able to understand why they have chosen to perform a particular song. Wilson says many of us have attended concerts where we have silently asked, "Why are they playing what they are playing?"
When I ask Wilson about vocalists he has worked with such as Al Jarreau, Aaron Neville and Madeleine Peyroux, he speaks glowingly about how each of them has inspired him. He describes Jarreau as someone who cares deeply about individuals and says that quality infuses his music. He describes Peyroux as a dear, dear friend. He refers to Neville as a very, very humble man. "It is his humility as a person that informs his music," Wilson says of Neville.
The arrangements for Power Of Nine are beautiful yet for the most part, simple. They are not busy tracks that plunge you into dissecting and analyzing the music. This album was created more for enjoyment than technical perfection. Wilson and his brilliance as a composer have however achieved both.
The cast of musicians includes, Eva Scow (mandolin), Adam Schroeder (baritone sax), Alan Ferber (trombone), Mark Ferber (drums), Matt Otto (tenor sax), Matt Zebley (alto and soprano sax), Gilbert Castellanos (trumpet), Donald Vega (piano), Derek "Oles" Oleszkiewicz (bass) and of course Anthony Wilson on guitar. Many of the musicians had played together on gigs prior to the nonet being formed.
Wilson says, "It is not like everybody in the world knows who the players in this band are. They are coming up, becoming more visible and having more opportunities to play their own music. They are making names for themselves. I am really connected to the fact that we created something as a band and we continue (to do that). I think that is so important."