The Earshot Jazz Festival has a reputation of presenting cutting-edge music, and this show fit the bill perfectly. Wilson and his bandmates, Kirk Knuffke on trumpet, Jeff Lederer on sax and clarinet and Chris Lightcap on bass, play angular, often free-sounding compositions that always feel like they are just about to break apart, but they never do. The band’s credo, as laid out in the program, is to “welcome the danger that can elevate a performance to venture into a territory where judement is dispelled and vulnerability is welcomed with open hearts and minds.” The last line in the program, referring to a quote by Aaron Copeland, says “We hope it does get out of hand.” And that it did, but only in the best way.
The entire show was a lesson in group improvisation and communication. From the introductory swishes of Wilson’s brushes on the snare drum to the final bomb dropped at the end of the epic heavy-metal-meets-jazz extravaganza, “Schoolboy Thug”, these four extremely talented musicians did nothing but listen and react to each other.
The frontline of Knuffke and Lederer played tight, crisp unison lines and beautiful simpatico counter-melodies throughout, which is even more remarkable given that Knuffke joined the band this month. Lederer, a mainstay in the MWQ for many years, has complete control of his instruments, that tonight included tenor and soprano sax and clarinet. His honks, squeals and incredible altissimo technique is tempered by a robust tone and an ability to throw in the perfectly timed sweetness to tie everything together. When he gets really fired up at the climax of his solos, he looks like a rock guitar player shreading on the six-string (he even threw in a Black Sabbath quote for good measure at one point). His off-kilter arrangement of the standard “Don’t Blame Me” is the perfect example of his inside-outside approach, as it often barely alluded to the original melody but was always melodic, even as he was jumping registers and honking away.
As a trumpet player myself, I’m always interested to hear one of my brethren that I haven’t heard before, and Knuffke completely blew me away. He has one of the sweetest trumpet tones I’ve ever heard, and can play extremely tender ideas in all registers. But he has also mastered many extended techniques which he used in very musical ways. And his compact yet warm tone complemented Lederer’s brashness perfectly. On the band’s last song of the set, the hymn “Come and Find the Quiet Center”, he almost brought me to tears with his lyricism, while on the title track to the new MWQ album “That’s Gonna Leave a Mark”, his sixteenth-note runs and and growls made me shake my head in disbelief. This guy is the consummate modern trumpet player, and has clearly studied the lineage, from Armstrong to Hubbard to Lester Bowie.
Bassist Lightcap played the part of straight-man all evening. While the rest of the band was quite animated and often prone to hoots of encouragement, Lightcap held down the low-end with a stoic grace that belied his immense talent and huge ears. He went from fat, Ray Brown-type quarter note lines to bowing way up the neck and always contributed exactly what was called for. His solos were also very melodic, even when they weren’t follow any specific chord changes.
And then there’s Wilson. He is an absolute force on the drums. Using sticks, brushes, mallets and his hands and fingers, he coaxed a remarkable array of sounds out of his small jazz kit. One of the things I love most about Wilson, an ethos he imparts to the whole band, is his willingness to use anything at his disposal to make music. Rims, stands, gongs, bells, chains, tambourines and toy bells are all part of his arsenal. At one point he turned the snare over to play on the wires and detuned his kick drum on the fly to get the sound he needed for that particular moment. But through it all he remained fully in control and always musical.
I know some reviews would talk more about specific songs and moments in the show, but that’s not what struck me about the MQW. It’s their overall approach to the music that left me feeling like I had just witnessed something special. Their ability to play very complex music and make it completely entertaining is beyond anything I’ve seen before. In another band’s hands the show might have felt challenging and dense. But because they were having so much fun throughout, and because everything they did was in service of the music, it felt like a wild and communal celebration of life. Their ability to play knotty, inside-outside jazz and keep it relatable is an inspiration and a model to modern jazz bands that want to play their own brand of music and continue to attract a wider audience.
All-in-all, the Matt Wilson Quartet did exactly what they tried to do, according to this quote from the website: “align, collide, trust, love, rock, soothe and have whole lotta fun allowing what was supposed to happen to happen!”
Wilson is in Seattle for the whole week and has more shows and clinics on the schedule, including shows at The Triple Door and Seattle Asian Art Museum and clinics at Cornish College of the Arts and the Unversity of Washington.
And here, for your viewing pleasure, is the Matt Wilson Quartet doing “Schoolboy Thug”. The live experience is something to behold, but this will give you an idea:
POSTSCRIPT (10.22.09) – It has come to my attention via this post that I may have done Matt and Co. a disservice by only posting the one video of “Schoolboy Thug”. Let me state for the record that this song was played as the encore after a wonderful 90 set of intense jazz, maybe as a kind of palate-cleanser. This is not the norm for this band (although you’d be hard-pressed to define a “norm” for this band at all!). Here are a few other videos of Matt playing just so you can put the previous one in the right context.