In the mid-40’s, when the young autodidacts of bebop swept away the Swing Era dance band leaders, a certain hauteur seemed to permanently attach itself to the music. (Dizzy Gillespie, a great entertainer-intellectual, was the exception.) In the 60’s, when Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane opened the door to a perfervid, squalling “New Thing,” jazz got enmeshed in the politics of black liberation and became an even more serious business.
And now drummer Matt Wilson, a lanky, chatty white kid from the Illinois farm belt, is threatening to screw up this hard-won attitude. “If we look like we’re having a good time, then great,” said Mr. Wilson. “When people come in for a set, I want to take them for a ride, let them experience different styles and still not lose that underlying [jazz] feeling.”
The title of the Matt Wilson Quartet’s second and latest album, Smile (Palmetto Records), practically dares you not to take him seriously. (On the CD cover, he looks like a grinning Beck manqué.) And yet, ever since he left Boston and the Either Orchestra in 1992, Mr. Wilson has been a significant player in New York’s left-of-center jazz scene. He’s established his old-school, avant-garde bona fides as a drummer with a Coleman associate, tenorist Dewey Redman. As the leader of his own band, he regularly plays downtown gigs at the Knitting Factory and Detour. (The Matt Wilson Quartet plays the Old Office at the Knitting Factory, Aug. 27 to 29.)
If, racially and culturally, Mr. Wilson represents a bit of a stretch for an old new-thing warrior like Mr. Redman (who once told the press he never thought he’d hire a white drummer until he heard Mr. Wilson), the drummer doesn’t much fit the profile of a downtown postmodernist, either. A real downtowner is pianist Uri Caine reimagining Mahler with a turntablist and a Moroccan cantor, or Marc Ribot digging into Cuban song master Arsenio Rodriguez with a heavy dose of surf guitar. What do these sly, elegant dislocations have to do with Smile ‘s “Making Babies” with its chant of “one, two, three …,” a reference to Mr. Wilson’s ultimately successful attempt to conceive his daughter Audrey. “These are brave things for a jazz band to do,” said the band’s tenor virtuoso, Joel Frahm, “even if some of them are on the verge of bad taste.” (Mr. Frahm has his own, fine, recent CD on Palmetto, Sorry, No Decaf .)
The Wilson band’s semi-regular forays into frat-house humor wouldn’t by themselves add up to much if they weren’t backed up by such a propulsive, cohesive group sound. Live, in a small space, the quartet can burn like the world’s most technically accomplished garage band. The engine is Mr. Wilson whose whip-quick wrists are matched by a well-equipped symphony percussionist’s sense of the possible. Bassist Yosuke Inoue takes care of the time, leaving Mr. Wilson free to comment on the music either obliquely-he can sound like he’s cleaning out the old garage-or directly, with a gift for lyrical drum play, in effect making rhythm sing. “He’s not afraid to be a child at the drums,” Mr. Frahm said. Mr. Wilson prefers to talk about his craving for a “big pulse” in his sound. He’s proud to acknowledge his roots in the work of busy, relentless drum geniuses like Max Roach and Ed Blackwell, but he also makes a less obvious connection with a generation of British rock drummers who came out of jazz: Charlie Watts, Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell. In contrast to the precise ching-a-ling on the ride cymbals that characterize a certain kind of bebop drummer, Mr. Wilson describes these woollier Brits as having “a more human time feel,” playing “rounder notes.” He said, “It’s like the suede jackets on the Davey Crockett TV show. There are fringes on the ends of the notes.”
Mr. Wilson’s own fringed barrage might be a little overwhelming were it not for his knack of surrounding himself with formidable players. On his 1996 debut album, As Wave Follows Wave (Palmetto), Mr. Redman’s enormous tenor sound lent a shambling majesty to “Body and Soul” and wasn’t out of place on “Blue Pepper (Far East of the Blues),” one of Ellington’s miscegenations with rock that sounds something like the theme song from the old Batman TV show (no doubt appealing to the drummer for that reason). But there is a dirge-like quality to Mr. Redman’s playing that doesn’t seem an exact match for Mr. Wilson’s irrepressibility.
With Going Once, Going Twice (Palmetto), the Wilson Quartet’s 1998 recorded debut, the drummer landed squarely in Funville. Lead sax duties were split between two young peers who blend and clash rather beautifully in spite of their having precious little in common. Mr. Frahm, a 1996 Thelonious Monk Institute contest finalist, plays with unassailable technique, with a gorgeous, airy tone somewhere between Stan Getz and Joe Henderson. Altoist Andrew D’Angelo is a note-shredder from the “energy” school. Between the two, the band’s got the jazz sophistication, alternative kick-ass bases covered and the personnel for a compelling stage show out of Moonstruck -Mr. D’Angelo raging about like a passion-wracked Nicolas Cage, Mr. Frahm as phlegmatic elder brother Danny Aiello contemplating the menu, pasta or fish.
The quartet’s mise en scène isn’t Brooklyn, though, but the farm country of Mr. Wilson’s youth. On the title cut of As Wave Follows Wave , he and Mr. Redman chant a Carl Sandburg poem. On Going Once, Going Twice , he refines the conceptualist approach he first developed studying with composer J.C. Combs at Wichita State, apparently a hotbed of heartland musical experimentalism. Mr. Wilson said he dreams about writing a piece for 30 jingle-blaring ice cream trucks racing around a track. The album’s title cut is guest artist Ned Sublette’s pitch-perfect rendering of a farm auction (“You all know Gus; he’s been farming in this area for 38 years. He’s retiring, and we want to get up a little nest egg for him”) over Mr. D’Angelo’s bass-clarinet-driven accompaniment. On the duet with drummer-guest artist Lee Konitz, “Land of Lincoln,” the estimable altoist is provoked to break into the Gettysburg Address.
If jazz can absorb world rhythms from Africa, Cuba and Brazil, it should be able to do right by the American family farm. But understand that the quartet ain’t all alfalfa and manure. The lead horns are given to dancing around each other in a contrapuntal fashion, and the best of Mr. Wilson’s tunes, like “Searchlight” from the quartet debut and “Wooden Eye” from the new album, have a compositional ingenuity that brings to mind guitarist Bill Frisell. At any rate, the heartland tropes jostling around in both men’s music have even given rise to a new genre designation, “avant-America.” “That label sounds O.K.,” Mr. Wilson said, “but maybe a little wimpy.”
The new album certainly cannot be accused of being wimpy. With Smile , the band set aside some of their more elaborate conceits and set about reproducing the buck and holler of a live show. It is, as Mr. Wilson is glad to tell you, an album that swings harder than its predecessors. Still, I’m not sure it will replace Going Once, Going Twice in my heart, the repose of the CD-listening experience more suited to the arty than the primal. (In addition to the fertility ritual of “Making Babies,” you also get the band chanting “big butt” on Mr. D’Angelo’s tune of the same name.) Hell, buy ’em both.
Interestingly for a band that prides itself on its idiosyncratic mélange of thrash, kitsch and bebop, on Smile , the band shines on two tunes by mainstream jazz icons. “Central Park” by Coltrane is packed with the chord changes that the band’s originals often avoid in favor of one or two melodies or grooves, and “Boo Boo’s Birthday” is vintage Monk, which is always tricky to play well. The Monk especially is a revelation, the master’s funkily interlocking melodies and rhythms somehow feeling right at home in a Wilsonian universe of jazz played with rocking abandon. Music this good can’t help being fun, even with no chants.