Matt Wilson brings swing to Lawrence

Grace Christiansen

Last Saturday night, Matt Wilson’s Arts and Crafts brought something that has been sorely lacking from the Chapel this concert season: Swing. The group featured Ron Miles on cornet, James Weidman on piano and organ, Martin Wind on bass and Matt Wilson on drums. I was apprehensive about a group led by a drummer and feared another titillating jaunt through the outermost limits academic jazz esoterica. Yet, instead of the expected never-ending display of technique and mixed meter, I was pleasantly surprised to hear a swinging and entertaining combination of modern jazz tunes. Clearly, this is a group in touch with the soulful elements of jazz tradition.
Wilson opened with the swinging original “We See” and followed with another original, “Scenic Route.” I particularly enjoyed the tasteful solos, which, while not a cocky display of ability, showed that the group possessed immense technical aptitude.
The group followed their boppish opening with “Cruise Blues.” This tune was a soulful ballad that reflected the group’s expansive palette and featured James Weidman on B3 organ. Weidman quickly showed his mastery over the instrument, firing off a grooving solo with finger-breaking licks. Although the group took some time to warm up, it was clear from the beginning that they were having an unhealthy amount of fun and possessed a nearly telepathic level of communication.
Both of those attributes — fun and communication — were on display in their more experimental piece “Bubbles” based on a Carl Sandberg poem of the same name. Even so, I was not totally sold on the piece itself. I liked the hard-boppy head but then when it slid into poem reading, accompanied by free playing, I feared that the monster of jazz pretension had once again reared its ugly head. But once again, Arts and Crafts proved it still had more tricks up its sleeve. Although highly experimental, this tune did not strike me as being different and innovative solely for the sake of it. The poem itself was short and amusing, and the group clearly displayed a sense of humor about the whole thing.
The piece then morphed into “Feel the Sway,” a tune dedicated to Wilson’s Yoga instructor, which called for the audience to sway and sing in time with the bass line, while the band exited one by one.
The second half opened up with “Aluminum Baby,” during which the cornet player finally played a solo that got my attention. Then, they played the super up-tempo Ornette-Coleman inspired tune, which saw the drums masterfully doubling the melody. “I Remember You,” followed – a ballad in memory of their usual bass player, who passed away a month ago.
This concert was the first without him, which would explain the difficulties encountered at the beginning. They finished with “In Touch with Dewey,” in tribute to the recently departed Dewey Redman. I never saw a bass solo quite like that one, moving from wonderfully lyrical phrasing to some hard blues played in false harmonics with the bow; it was as technically impressive as it was musical.
In both his performance and master class the next day, Wilson and his group communicated, both verbally and musically, an immense amount of technical competence, emotional sensitivity, and sheer love for the music they were performing.