Drummers are a different breed. When everyone else picked a melody instrument to play back in elementary school, future drummers chose, instead, to hit things. This decision to aggressively strike objects—rather than to create glorious melodies—has led many to question the sanity of percussionists. It has also led to some of the best musician jokes:
Q: What do you call someone who hangs around with musicians?
A: A drummer.
Q: How can you tell when a drummer’s at the door?
A: He doesn’t know when to come in.
Thirty-five-year-old percussionist Matt Wilson not only knows that drummers are rare birds, he flies in their flock with glee. Although not as goofy as legendary free-jazz screwball Han Bennink (who once played a solo with an 8-foot-long cardboard fist), Wilson loves to play while he plays. From blaring Menudo from cassette players hidden under concertgoers’ seats to using a kid’s squeaky rubber hammer on his bass drum, Wilson is irreverent but, somehow, avoids coming off like a present-day Spike Jones. Wilson’s omni-jazz compositions are intelligent and often ironic—he has even written parts for audience members to perform during bass solos. (They’re usually just talking and eating, anyway; why not organize their disinterest?)
Wilson grew up in rural Illinois listening to Roger Miller records—which probably explains the barnyard-funk number, “Free Range Chicken,” on his debut, As Wave Follows Wave, and the banjo-fied “Going Once, Going Twice,” his second album’s titular ode to auctioneers. Wilson attended Wichita State University in Kansas, where one of his professors once led the college’s percussion ensemble in a performance inspired by pro wrestlers—and another in which the musicians played the insides of pinball machines. Wilson, of course, loved it all. But after regularly gigging with Dewey Redman, Cecil McBee, and Lee Konitz, and spending five years with the mischievous Either/Orchestra, Wilson formed his own quartet in 1996.
Q: What’s the last thing a drummer says in a band?
A: “Hey, guys—why don’t we try one of my songs?”
Wilson’s excellent new album, Smile, takes the wind right out of that jape. Like Going Once, Going Twice, Smile features his quartet—including tenor and soprano saxophonist Joel Frahm, alto saxophonist and bass clarinetist Andrew D’Angelo, and bassist Yosuke Inoue—performing a mixture of free jazz and tight swing, silly asides and heartfelt ballads.
Wilson’s “Wooden Eye” begins the record with a fiery sax duel, spurred on by the drummer’s wild thumps. It then cools into an edgy blues stomp that could accompany a scene showing the Jets and the Sharks sizing each other up for battle in West Side Story. After “Wooden Eye”‘s jump cuts, the band sweetly swings through Thelonious Monk’s “Boo Boo’s Birthday.” The quartet plays the track with such “straight faces” that you expect something silly to break out at any moment—like Wilson playing his underarm. But it never happens. The same reverence is bestowed upon the seldom-covered John Coltrane tune “Grand Central,” which bebops with a rush-hour madness strongly reminiscent of the piece’s original 1959 recording.
On his own “A Dusting of Snow,” Wilson drags what sound like beads and brushes over his snare drum, recalling Max Roach’s melodic playing and penchant for sound colors. Wilson creates a dusty atmosphere for D’Angelo’s bass clarinet, which itself evokes a chamber-jazz mood in the mode of Jimmy Giuffre. The song perfectly conjures the desolate but oddly consoling winter plains that Wilson grew up on. But just as the band seems to settle into a darker hue, it breaks out the bright lights on D’Angelo’s “Big Butt.” The song grooves exactly the way it’s titled: It’s rump-shaking, gutbucket funk, with Wilson imitating a DJ scratching with a noise that sounds like sawing into a log.
The only time Wilson & Co.’s jolly nature is a little too coy is on D’Angelo’s “Making Babies.” Its buoyant, “Jeepers Creepers”-style melody is interrupted by a strange series of count-offs screamed by the entire band. They seem less like inspired lunacy than simply out-of-place intrusions. But D’Angelo then rips through a feisty alto sax solo that makes all the wink-wink bits easy to forget about.
Wilson stretches out completely on “Daymaker (for Audrey),” a sweet and harmonically rich lullaby he wrote for his daughter, but he instantly heads back into comedic territory on “Go Team Go!” It’s a spazzy, postmodern baseball song that could easily soundtrack one of those classic screwball Bugs Bunny baseball cartoons or the Woody Woodpecker ‘toon in which he goes into the stands and opens his soda on a bucktoothed guy’s teeth.
Wilson himself is all teeth on the cover of Smile, showing his big choppers with complete unselfconsciousness, and it’s this earnestness that makes his whimsical music so appealing. The drummer even plays high schools to encourage students to get excited about jazz—and maybe to inspire a few kids to pick up the sticks themselves. But Wilson’s playfulness runs even deeper: Be sure to check under your chair for a Ricky Martin tape when the Matt Wilson Quartet plays One Step Down this weekend. CP
The Matt Wilson Quartet performs at One Step Down Nov. 12 and 13.