A few days before Christmas, I stopped being a grinch and went to see drummer Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O play at Cornelia St. Café, a fairly hip jazz club in New York City. Reedist Jeff Lederer and bassist Paul Sikivie make up the other two-thirds of the Tree-O, and they played so well that I was mesmerized for the entire show.
Lederer’s performance was both hilarious and amazing. He and Wilson had a hysterical back and forth about their free-jazz Christmas rivalry with John Zorn’s band, The Dreamers, who released a threateningly good Christmas album last December. Lederer also showed his prowess on his red toy piano; he played the Lexus “December to Remember” theme, and was visibly upset when he realized that his piano didn’t have any black keys.
He supplemented his humor with some incredible playing. His robust and authoritative tone on tenor was unmistakable, as my friends and I were sitting at a table that was about two feet from his horn. Lederer called it “the splash zone,” and his spit only added to the intensity.
One of the themes of the night — besides Christmas — was the legendary tenor player Albert Ayler. The Tree-O played Ayler’s tune “Angels” and Sikivie and Lederer gave Wilson the Albert Ayler box set as a Christmas present — a gift I would love to receive for Christmas or any other special occasion, hint, hint. So when Wilson plugged Lederer’s recently released, Ayler-inspired album “Albert’s Sun,” I couldn’t wait to hear it.
“Albert’s Sun” is as good as I thought it would be. Wilson plays drums on the album, and he and Lederer always sound great together — they’ve played together for years in the Matt Wilson Quartet.
Long-time John Zorn associate and Dreamers member Jamie Saft plays piano and organ. His organ playing sounds especially great, though his shredding may be a cover for a Christmas-related, Zorn-sponsored spy operation against Lederer and Wilson.
The most surprising and impressive sideman, however, is veteran bassist Buster Williams. I know Williams best from his electric bass playing with Herbie Hancock’s 1970s band Mwandishi. He plays upright on “Albert’s Sun” and holds down a groove the whole time. His playing feels great.
“Albert’s Sun” is a no-frills album that a friend of mine appropriately described as a “throwback.” The album has a heavier swing feel than most contemporary jazz albums, which often feature more straight-eighth, complicated rhythms. The Ayler influence is present throughout, especially in Lederer’s playing. While the band never gets quite as far out as Ayler, the album has plenty of raw energy; it channels Ayler appropriately without sounding like a one-time-listen tribute album.
The album even has some Lederer style humor. The song “Arnold Schoenberg’s Son (Was My Math Teacher)” is unsurprisingly about one of Lederer’s former teachers; when Lederer asked him about some of his father’s compositional techniques, the teacher replied that he was there to talk about math, not music.
The final tune on “Albert’s Sun,” “Turiyasangitananda,”seems to take its inspiration from Pharoah Sanders. The beginning of the tune is very relaxed and spacey, but Wilson gradually begins a slow groove while Williams solos. Saft takes the next solo and builds in intensity; by the time Lederer starts blowing, the groove has really developed. Lederer’s wailing has a distinctive Ayler influence, but Lederer also has his own distinctive sound. So distinctive, in fact, that I can almost feel his spit flying through the speakers as I sit in “the splash zone.”