Swinging with Wilson

US Drummer Matt Wilson headlines this year’s Jerusalem Jazz Festival.

Matt Wilson (photo credit: JOHN ABBOTT)
Matt Wilson
(photo credit: JOHN ABBOTT)
Jazz drummers tend to be an effervescent bunch. You only have to think of seemingly indefatigable evergreen 93-year-old Roy Haynes, or Billy Hart, a decade and a half his junior, to get the irrepressible energy vibe from the guys who generally sit at the back of stage, supporting the rest of the gang.
Mind you, neither Haynes nor Hart nor, for that matter, Art Blakey, whose Jazz Messengers’ outfit, albeit with changes in personnel, ran for 35 years where content to just “keep time” for too long. Matt Wilson seems to come from a similar mold.
The 54-year-old American drummer, one of the headliners at this year’s Jerusalem Jazz Festival, which takes place at its regular berth of the Israel Museum December 12 to 14, comes across as a highly enthused character, both on and off the stage. He also exudes his fair share of bonhomie, while alternately pounding and caressing the skins. Wilson makes no apologies for his feel-good approach to displaying his craft.
“I always try to have as much fun as possible,” he declares simply. And he fully intends to maintain that sunshiny mind-set over here. “Jerusalem is a very special place. The last time I was there I thought it was so beautiful. I loved it. It is a very spiritual place.” Wilson will be joined, for his December 13 slot (8:45 p.m.) by festival artistic director, trumpeter Avishai Cohen and bassist Barak Mori, both old sparring partners of the American drummer.
Over the last three-plus decades, Wilson has contributed to and led all kinds of lineups, playing standards, original works and even some slightly oddball and highly entertaining fare based on traditional Christmas songs. Over the time, he has built up a weighty discography of 17 albums as leader, and sharing the bandstand and recording studio with a broad slew of artists, taking in such revered envelope pushers as bassist Charlie Haden, reedman Dewey Redman, pianist Andrew Hill, and bassists Mark Dresser and Cecil McBee.
Considering his personal and professional demeanor, it comes as no surprise to learn that the career path kickstarter for the young Wilson was catching one of the jazz drummer fraternity’s most explosive and colorful characters.
“I was in second grade and I saw Buddy Rich on the Lucy Show and I was fascinated by how he looked playing the drums, just everything about him,” he says. “We got to see music a little more on television back then. So we got introduced to it, and we could see things.”
It wasn’t only jazz that informed the youngsters evolving musical consciousness.
“My parents had all sorts of records – classical music, country and western, and marches and all kinds of things,” Wilson says. “I heard all this music, and I really liked it, and I liked the drums.” There was help to be had from close to home. “I started messing around on drums, and my brother played saxophone so we would play duets.” It was very much a matter of finding his own way through the mysteries and intricacies of time keeping, and textural ranges. “I sort of played music before I really learned to play the drums. I didn’t take lessons until later on. I think that was good. I was performing from early on. My brother and I would play at, say, a women’s club meeting or other people.”
It was also very much about entertainment from the get go.
“We would play music, and we would also tell jokes and do all sorts of things,” Wilson chuckles. “We played [trumpeter composer arranger] Herb Alpert tunes, and pop music of the day. I remember [the Joni Mitchell number] ‘Both Sides Now’ was a favorite. We also played [electronic hit] ‘Popcorn.’” It was very much a work in continued progress. “In the mid-70s, we’d buy all the songbooks and work through them,” he recalls.
That, and the jazz standards, may seem like a pretty broad canvas to draw from, but Wilson said they all had one important common denominator.
“They were all swinging,” he says. “Even the TV commercials music was swinging, country music was swinging, the rock music that I liked was shuffle and swinging. I always like the feel of swing. The roundness of it, and sharing it with other people. That’s a big part of my story.”
For tickets and more information about the Jerusalem Jazz Festival: www.jerusalemjazzfestival.org.il