MATT WILSON’S BIG HAPPY FAMILY: BEGINNING OF A MEMORY / WILSON: Score; Lester; Searchlight; Beginning of a Memory; Request Potato; How Ya Goin’?; Father of the Year; Getting Friendly; Orchids; No Outerwear; Potato Radio; Go Team Go!; 25 Years of Rootabagas; Feel the Sway; Schoolboy Thug; July Hymn. D’ANGELO: Andrew’s Ditty. WEBSTER: Wildwood Flower. RITCHIE: Endless Love / Terell Stafford, trumpet; Kirk Knuffke, cornet; Jeff Lederer, clarinet/alto sax/soprano sax; Joel Frahm, tenor sax/soprano sax; Andrew d’Angelo, alto sax/bass clarinet; Gary Versace, piano/organ/accordion; Larry Goldings, piano; Martin Wind, Paul Skivie, Yosuke Inoue, bass; Chris Lightcap, bass/el-bass; Matt Baltisaris, guitar/dobro; Matt Wilson, drums / Palmetto Records (no number, available at iTunes)
Sometimes it’s difficult to come to a new recording by a band that’s been around for several years, but which you’ve not heard before, and sometimes it doesn’t really matter. Yes, you’ve missed their earlier output and perhaps what they’re all about, but in a certain sense coming to their work fresh and without preconceptions can be enlightening, like discovering an iPhone (which I’ve never owned and don’t even know how they work) a decade or two after everyone else has had one.
Perhaps in this case it was a good idea anyway, because on this release, the first album Wilson made since his wife Felicia died of leukemia in 2014, he has reassembled all his previous bandmates from the Matt Wilson Quartet, Arts & Crafts and Christmas Tree-O (neither of which I’ve heard before, either). Judging from the style of both the compositions and the performances, Wilson’s group(s) seem to be an American version, so to speak, of the Willem Brueker Kollektief: highly eclectic in their combination of styles, some inside jazz, some outside jazz, a wide range of tempos and meters, and a very uninhibited feel to the whole enterprise.
Wilson proves that a creative band can take somewhat familiar materials, put them in a box, shake them up and pour them out as something both unfamiliar and clever. Every selection on this charming, sometimes humorous album strikes the ear gratefully. There are but a few rough edges to dispel listeners who don’t care much for squawking and squealing saxophones. In the end one comes away with tremendous admiration for these musicians’ abilities to just go with the flow and create interesting and diverse music, whether it be the asymmetric, edgy rhythms of Andrew d’Anglo’s Andrew’s Ditty (which does indeed contain a bit of outside playing) or the wistful, charming waltz of Wilson’s Beginning of a Memory. Flowers for Felicia is actually a medley of two pieces, Wilson’s Orchids and the old country classic Wildwood Flower, here played in an exquisitely beautiful manner by clarinetist Lederer at a surprisingly slow tempo. This track contains almost no improvisation through most of it save for pianist Goldings and another, almost sotto voce, solo by Wilson. Only at the five-minute mark does the band enter into a bit of collective improvisation, a style of jazz seldom indulged in by modern groups. It is a fairly straight reading, meant as a tribute to the leader’s late wife, and very touching in that respect.
But for that one really touching moment, however, this session is joyous and full of surprises. Wilson said that his wife really loved those numbers where the band played “pretty nutty,” and that sense of puckish humor informs a good portion of the album, particularly this performance of Schoolboy Thug. The press release accompanying this release states that none of the arrangements were written, although I suspect that there may have been lead sheets handed out. Apparently, these musicians’ familiarity with Wilson and his style was so complete that he could just let them play and not worry about the quality of the results.
Some of the pieces here are quite catchy, particularly No Outerwear which sounded to me like a contrafact of some earlier tunes (the opening sounds like the chords of Bye Bye Blues, the other melody has been running through my head, but alas, no title has yet surfaced). The album’s opener, Score, and Potato Radio are really no more than sound effects apparently piped in from a radio playing somewhere—more sound gags. The opening of the medley of Go Team / Endless Love is by far one of the wackiest pieces on the record, essentially outside playing by one of the tenor saxes in front of some out-of-tempo drumming by Wilson and shouts of “Go team!” and “Touchdown!” (We even hear a snippet of “Go Wisconsin,” as if the other references to football mania weren’t enough.) By contrast the second half, Lionel Ritchie’s Endless Love, is played as a slow and tender pizzicato bass solo that simply wanders off into the sunset. 25 Years of Rootabagas sounds suspiciously like an old-timey C&W tune, only jazzed up (and played on the accordion!) while Feel the Sway features bowed bass over two pizzicato basses in a semi-soul-jazz type of piece. The aforementioned Schoolboy Thug most definitely has a Willem Brueker feel about it, complete with screaming trumpet and odd, asymmetric breaks.
We end with the calm, quiet lyricism of July Hymn, a piece seemingly compiled of ideas from old Christian hymnals mixed with a bit of tongue-in-cheek jazzing. Here I was particularly impressed by the improvised interplay of trumpeter Stafford and cornetist Knuffke, who really make the tune work. Once again, and for the final time, we simply ride off into the sunset.
Beginning of a Memory is an excellent album. I’m sure that for Wilson, the project was very personal and perhaps somewhat cathartic, but I think his late wife would find it to be a fair representative of her husband’s musical personality: serious, quirky, tender and rambunctious. I certainly liked it.
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley