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  • Glenn Siegel

Matt Wilson Quartet Dazzles at UMass

“Enjoy.” That was Matt Wilson’s advice to Amherst College music students who had gathered to hear the great drummer, composer, bandleader and educator give a workshop before his evening concert. Wilson is a pied piper, on and off the bandstand, using a disarming brilliance to spread his enthusiasm for jazz.

Matt Wilson follows his own advice. Despite the devastating loss of Felicia, his childhood sweetheart, wife and mother of his four teenage children two years ago, Wilson is consistently upbeat, grateful and full of wonder. It’s contagious.

“Give the music more life,” he told Professor Jason Robinson’s students. “Try different things. Play the music slightly backwards to see how it feels. Break out of jazz conventions like head/solo/head, trading fours. Give listeners some mystery, something else to listen to.”

His ensemble, featuring saxophonist Jeff Lederer, cornetist Kirk Knuffke and bassist Martin Wind, gave us plenty to listen to, as they kicked off the 27th year of the UMass Fine Arts Center’s Magic Triangle Jazz Series on Thursday, February 25.

I like to listen to music with my eyes closed. But I had to peek when the band was replaced by what sounded like a Balinese gamelan. All four musicians had picked up brightly colored bells of different pitches and played complex, highly rhythmic, ever changing music. Soon they were using the bells to strike their instruments, producing sounds from other worlds. The piece, “Raga”, a Wilson original found on Humidity (Palmetto, 2002), also featured a driving Indian-based melody and Wilson’s mind-bending solo on the tamberim, a small Brazilian frame drum.

At another point, I had to look again to make sure Wilson’s Quartet had not been replaced by Sun Ra’s Solar-Myth Arkestra. Chris Lightcap had recently given Wilson a stylus synthesizer, a cheap, hand-held gadget, which he rubbed on his floor tom to produce weird, undulating electronic noises. They were not random sounds but, like everything Wilson touches, were filled with logic, wit and surprise. From the amazed smiles and shaking heads of his bandmates, who craned to see what was happening, I’m guessing this marked Wilson’s debut with the little instrument.

Wilson is a genuinely funny guy. After playing “Hug”, with its infectious, easily hummable melody, he mused how well it could serve as a TV theme song, referencing classics like the Mary Tyler Moore show. As the band picked up the melody again, Wilson pantomimed a smiling, waving bus driver using his cymbal as steering wheel.

Just like his imaginary bus driver, Wilson smiles a lot. He also makes other people smile a lot. He is the most important and effective jazz educator this side of Wynton Marsalis. (After Wilson’s Friday UMass workshop, Professor Tom Giampietro wrote, “The kids LOVED it. I have been getting great feedback already, which I knew would happen!”)

Unlike Marsalis, Wilson does not draw lines in the aesthetic sand. He loves it all, and urges students and listeners to embrace all music made with “honesty, clarity and grace.” His Magic Triangle concert reflected that big tent philosophy. While the band approached Charlie Rouse’s “Pumpkin’s Delight” and Gene Ammons’ “The One Before This” with the original swagger and swing, they had no compunction adding daring harmonies and extended techniques. As he introduced the beautiful ballad, “Barack Obama”, written by Butch Warren, he spoke reverentially about Monk’s long time bassist. At other points during the 80-minute concert, the band played abstractly, stretching boundaries that would have made Wynton squirm. That’s why we will follow Matt Wilson wherever he goes.

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