If pomposity is a Superman-like barrier to entry into jazz, drummer Matt Wilson is its Kryptonite, a firm believer that if you play music honestly, you'll attract the right listeners. This week, Wilson's quartet — saxophonist Jeff Lederer, cornetist Kirk Knuffke and bassist Chris Lightcap — released "Gathering Call," a new album for Palmetto Records with guest pianist John Medeski, who'll join them for a gig at Old Lyme's Side Door on Tuesday, Jan. 28 at 8:30 p.m.
Wilson spoke to CTNow about "Gathering Call," what it's like to play for presidents and the secret of putting together great bands. [This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.]
CTNow: What was it like to play at the White House?
MW: It's pretty deep. You can reel off any famous venues — Village Vanguard, or whatever — but when you mention the White House, most people know that place. It was fun, really exciting.
CTNow: What was the scene like?
MW: Former President Carter was there, President Clinton, Secretary of State Clinton. It was a state dinner for the president of China, who was visiting. Barbra Streisand was there. I had never had the opportunity to play with Herbie Hancock before, so I finally got to play with him. We rehearsed a little bit, just ran through some stuff. But it was pretty in-the-moment. Herbie's definitely an in-the-moment kind of person. It wasn't too scripted. The sound from the piano was something I'll never forget. Hopefully I'll get to do it again.
It's remarkable how small the rooms are in there. The East Room, where we played, is really not that large. We got to look around the house a little. It was pretty loose, actually, once we were inside… What was really unique was when I left the soundcheck, I walked out the front door of the White House, where you see the press people. Usually there's a little area where they are, the curved driveway. I walked right out on to the sidewalk out that door. So everytime I see that on the news, I'm like, "Wow, I've walked down there."
CTNow: When did you first play with John Medeski?
MW: He's one of the first musicians my wife and I heard when we moved to Boston in 1987. He had a very unique approach and sound, and I met him soon after that. John's not only an incredible musician, his instincts are always so in place, his sound, his enthusiasm. He always opens things up in a really unique way, and he always swings, which is amazing. The breadth of what he's capable of is astonishing and admirable.
I wanted to document having [cornetist] Kirk [Knuffke] in the band now, and I thought [having Medeski participate] would be a really great way to make a different record with that band, and also to get him to react to a band feeling. John's one of the most malleable people. You can put him in the middle of any situation and he'd be able to express himself and be himself and still lift the proceedings.
CTNow: You're in the business of putting together musicians and creating bands. What's the secret? When you bring John Medeski into a quartet that's been playing together for awhile, how do you know it's going to work?
MW: I don't really know. Most of the time, it's about intent. There's trust there. Everybody is there for the same purpose, and that's to play the song and to welcome the common ground, which is where everybody contributes to that sound in the middle, that "soup." Everybody's playing their part. They're on their own, but the ultimate aspect is what happens collectively. I surround myself with musicians who have those principles. It's not like, "Oh, I'm going to solo like crazy over this. Check me out!" There's that form of ego of jazz, which is okay too. But I'm interested in people who can really connect all the musicians together and reach out.
It was pretty easy to do on this particular date with [saxophonist] Jeff [Lederer], Kirk, [bassist] Chris [Lightcap] and John. They'd never played with John before, so even right off the bat it felt great. What's fun about John Medeski: these guys had just met him, but within five minutes you feel like you've known him your whole life. That's true of all the guys in this group, actually. The outlook makes a big difference. You pick people because you trust what they do. I don't tell them what to do. You give them direction or you inspire them or whatever. But they're there because they know what to do. You never know what's going to happen, and that's the joy of all this. That's why it's so much fun.
I think that's been a barrier between the performer and the audience. The unexpected is a little less there, or a little less apparent. Vulnerability is key to a performance. I don't care what flavor of performance it is. When you're vulnerable, you're welcoming people in.
CTNow: You've talked about getting rid of the "moat" between the front row of the audience and the band itself.
MW: Musicians on the stage offer and receive sound. That's what we're doing: we're offering something and we're receiving it simultaneously. To me, all riveting performers do that. A lot times that's just being natural. The other way of looking at it is: if the music is so explicit that it doesn't give the listener an opportunity to hear it and create their own imagery of what's happening then you're not really welcoming them in either. The best way to do it is, if there's joy happening on stage with what's going on, I think the people will like it. If it looks like the people on stage don't want to be there or if it seems that there's not that kind of joy and enthusiasm and communication happening that celebrates the moment, they aren't going to be welcomed into it either, no matter how accessible stylistically — a dirty word in my house — we think the music is. I think people sense that honesty and vulnerability just about more than anything else. I find that to be pretty true. You can really bring people in.
CTNow: You want to pick players who feel a sense of joy when they're performing.
MW: Yes, and also when they're not performing. That's a big difference. I'm very fortunate not only with these bands that all of them are sincere and friendly. A lot of times, these are folks who are overjoyed and happy just to be there, just having the opportunity to do this. It's something we all dreamed of doing, and now we have the chance to do it. We weren't stars at 19 or 20. We put some time into this, which is another great thing about right now, with this band. These guys all have their own vision too, and that's really healthy to have that happening. What makes great bandleaders are people who are great side people, and what makes great side people are people who are bandleaders. They feed each other. We're also interconnected outside of these ensembles.
CTNow: Everyone seems to know each other.
MW: With jazz, I think it's out of necessity. There is no one group that works so much that you're dedicated to that one ensemble. One of the great skills a musician can have is the ability to immediately feel like something's a band, even if it's the very first time you're playing together. There's no break-in period. In this day and age, we don't have that luxury of long tours or extended gigs, where the music can build itself. You immediately have to feel that the first time you play together, you're a band. I really pride myself on that being one of my strongest things that I can contribute to a situation.
CTNow: As a musician, you have an extroverted personality. Is it more difficult for young players who are more introverted? Is that where a type of mentorship can help out, to pull in some musicians who perhaps are not as comfortable with social interaction?
MW: That's a great question. I gave a masterclass on Wednesday at the Manhattan School of Music, and I didn't talk about playing all that much. I talked about these kinds of things: being gracious to your fellow musicians, being gracious to your audience… I want there to be a little more overt enthusiasm going on. I don't want to be fake either, but I'm just still puzzled. When did it become not hip to have fun doing this? Entertaining is not a bad word. When you're entertaining someone in your home, you're being gracious. You create relationships with those folks [in the audience].
In the old days, bands would come to town fairly often. [People] not only got to hear the music, but they got to know the musicians a lot more. They'd come through Hartford two or three times a year on their way to Boston, or they'd come through Indianapolis two times a year, and they'd not only be there, they'd be there for extended days, so that people had a chance to visit with them, maybe invite them over for dinner. Now, because most of the concerts are collegiate-based, we only really get to visit every four or five years. We have to try to figure out ways to get back sooner sometimes.
CTNow: What sound were you trying to get on "Gathering Call?"
MW: We started at noon, and we were done at 6:30. Most of the records I've done, I just do them all in one shot. Some of the music has been in the repertoire for awhile, and those songs actually ended up being very different versions too. But we didn't even run things down. We just talked about it and tried it, and most of those first takes are the ones.
I love that first take, where there's no "how's it supposed to go" vibe. There are always songs you have to work at a few times, to try to figure out a shape, and then there are ones that come really easy and ones that you're not sure about. We got done with the version of "Barack Obama," and we were like, "Wow, I don't know about that." We listened to it, and it's great.
What I really like about "Gathering Call" is that it's really swinging. Swing is not only the melody of time for me, which is an important part of my musical world, but I think the symbolism of swing — flexibility, trust, when the unexpected is welcome — there are some beautiful moments of it on there. There's no sense in defending that we're playing swing, because we really put our signature on it. It was 2013 when we made the record, and we played the music as if it was that day. It wasn't like we were trying to recreate anything. I think that's a strong point of the record, that the stuff that's swinging on there is really now.
CTNow: There are so many players now that are turning their backs on swing.
MW: It's the music I grew up playing, and it's what I connect with. I've put a lot of time into it, and I feel an allegiance for that feel. To be honest, it's something that I can do, and there are ways of doing it. If you say "that's swing," it's like saying "that's rock," or "that's art." There are a lot of different kinds of feels you can open up. Swing is not just a beat, it's a welcoming of sound. All of these guys do that really well.
Feel, in music, is really the key, how something feels. And that could be beat or the way things interact. I have the utmost respect for anyone who's trying to do their art, and I'm down. That's what I'm trying to offer. And in this case, I think "Gathering Call" is an honest performance, and that's why it sounds fresh.
MATT WILSON QUARTET with John Medeski appears Tuesday, Jan. 28, at The Side Door, 85 Lyme St., Old Lyme. Tickets are $35. Show time is 8:30 p.m. Information: 860-434-0886, thesidedoorjazz.com.