I like my jazz with some whimsy when possible, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be deep. Matt Wilson’s band, Arts & Crafts, fits this bill to a tee. They are loose and fun, but also capable of great emotion and subtlety. What a relief in a style of music that, too often, seems about precision and grandiosity. Wilson ambles and takes detours as a drummer, and his band follows. It’s a casual stroll, but the destinations are substantial.
Arts & Crafts consists of veteran trumpeter Terrell Stafford; the pianist, accordionist, and organist Gary Versace; new bass player Martin Wind; and the leader on drums. Wilson does not lead by being the loudest player but rather with a willingness to infuse his playing with a human looseness. It might be unfair to call his playing “messy”, but it has a spontaneous, shambling character that refuses to be straightened out by strict rules. The result is a band that has many modes and moods, each of which is truly genuine. Although we’re talking about instrumental jazz here, the music onAn Attitude for Gratitude has heart and humour and soul.
Let’s start with the fact that, on this wonderful new record, Wilson and the piano trio record Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” – the first time I’ve heard that complex, gospel-based pop song on a jazz disc. What took folks so long? The melody emerges as a series of tinkling bells while Wilson and Wind push-pull the tune along like it was a man sliding deftly across a tightrope. The band keeps it short, at less than four minutes, and no one gets hurt.
On a different tip, Stafford joins the trio for a slowly melancholy take on “Happy Days Are Here Again”. It’s not winkingly ironic, just beautiful. The normally peppy and corny melody is played with tenderness but a remaining awareness of the lyrics. When you hear the title of the song in the slowly, bluely unfolding trumpet melody, what you get is an awareness that the return of happy days means a stretch of sadness preceding. Versace’s piano solo paces through a set of minor and blues chords with yearning. Like it should.
But because we’re talking about Matt Wilson here, there is also fun and a certain artiness. John Scofield’s tune “You Bet” is jaunty and grooving, with a polyrhythmic cross-hatching of dance rhythms pushing along a hip melody. It twists to something Latin for a moment, then it goes into a blues lick. Resist it if you can. On the other hand, there is “Bubbles”, a long track that combines circus music, an accordion jam, fairly “out” trumpet playing, and a recited poem by Carl Sandburg – a knotty combination that forces the listener to track a journey from one horizon to another.
The pure pleasures on Gratitude are pretty great too. The quartet’s take on Jaco Pastorius’s “Teen Town” is utterly convincing – and again the first time I’ve heard the tune covered. Versace’s organ blends with Stafford’s muted horn to create textures worthy of the band Weather Report, and then for the trumpet solo Wilson creates a slamming backbeat that allows the band to get reasonably dirty. And, let me tell you, it feels good to get down in the mud.
Nearly half of the tunes on Gratitude are original, and all carry water. Aside from “Bubbles”, there is the bouncing Versace tune “Poster Boy”, which allows the pianist to unspool a great line of modern jazz that culminates in a set of jagged chords leading to a hypnotizing bass solo. Wind’s “Cruise Blues” is pure relaxation, and Wilson’s “No Outerwear” has an easy swing that could be fruitfully covered by a big band. Wilson drives it with authority, and then he even gets in a quick drum solo –clacking away like an old pro. His tune “Stolen Time” is the most open thing on the record: a form that turns some fast swing into an open plain of semi-organized freedom. Wilson gets to fragment his playing as the rest of the band gallops out over the landscape and plays with abandon.
“Play” remains the operative word with Matt Wilson’s Arts & Crafts. This is jazz that emphasizes a sense of childlike wonder. The full range of emotions is here, not just blues or ecstasy and especially not merely nostalgia. Matt Wilson is working, freely and with great pleasure, in the here and now, where jazz has always been at its best.
An Attitude for Gratitude has its finger, easily and pleasantly, on the present pulse.