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Matt Wilson Delivers Listeners A Musical Hug

John Abbott

Matt Wilson's 2018 LP Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg earned the veteran musician a Musician of the Year from the Jazz Journalist Association while the LP itself was named Record of the Year.

Wilson, who is no stranger to accolades, has earned some new ones with his latest release, Hug!, credited to the Matt Wilson Quartet.

Joined by his longtime collaborators Jeff Lederer (Brooklyn Blowhards, Swing N' Dix, Honey Ear Trio), Kirk Knuffke (Josh Roseman's Extended Constellations, Allison Miller's Boom Tic Boom), and Chris Lightcap (Dianne Reeves, Marc Ribot, Anthony Coleman).

Featuring compositions from Gene Ammons ("The One Before"), Abdullah Ibrahim ("Jabulani") and Charlie Haden ("In the Moment"), Hug! also gives evidence of Wilson's inimitable humor and appreciation of American music's various streams, though jazz, of course, remains the primary one.

Wilson recently spoke with KMUW from his home in New York state.

Interview Highlights

How did this new record, Hug!, come about?

This band has been in existence for a long time with Jeff [Lederer, saxophone], Kirk [Knuffke, cornet] and Chris [Lightcap, bass] and I. We were doing a concert in March 2019 at Temple University, Terell Stafford heads the department there. He wasn't there that day but one of his longtime partners, Tim Warfield, the great tenor saxophonist, a very dear friends of ours, was there.

We did a workshop for the students in the afternoon and played a concert that night. We brought some of this music, played it for students, then played a concert, just to try it out. Tim came up to me and said, "I want to talk to you." He said, "This is not only one of the greatest jazz bands, this is one of the greatest bands. You've got a great band here."

Sometimes in jazz or with me, I feel like you have to do something new each time, a new project or whatever, keeping documentation of how a band progresses. I was really inspired by that moment. I thought, "This is a really great band." I decided to record it.

You have the "Space Force March" coupled with Sun Ra's "Interplanetary Music." What is your relationship with Sun Ra's music?

I got into Sun Ra, like many things, through my late brother, Mark. He was five years older than me and was a real adventurous music listener. He turned me on to a lot of great music over the years. He's the one that got me into Sun Ra. He saw the Sun Ra Arkestra when he was in college and said, "Oh, you gotta check this out." So I got into it.

I saw the band quite a few times and met Sun Ra once or twice. I've collaborated with Marshall Allen, the great alto saxophone player [from the Arkestra]. He was with the quartet, as a guest for a Jazz For Young People's concert we did for Jazz At Lincoln Center called What Is Free Jazz? Marshall was great and sat in for a set with us in Philly with the Christmas Trio. He played great. I love anything that has drama and theater to it, so that's one of the reasons.

I wrote "Space Force March" in the summer of '19 or maybe even the summer of '18. We played a gig in the city and it was kind of a hit, so we decided to put the two together.

Matt Balitsaris was the one that actually sort of weaved [Trump's] speech in. We talked about it, sort of collaborated on it, but he did all the magic. It's great. Some people really don't like that part of it. [Laughs.] It's really funny. Some people say, "It's great, I just don't want to hear Trump's voice no matter what.' So I thought it was funny. You gotta push 'em around a little bit.

You also do this version of Roger Miller's "King of the Road" on the new record.

I've probably listened to Roger Miller's Greatest Hits probably more than any other record in my entire life. I started listening to it as a kid, you know, three or four years old.

I tell people all the time, you know, I love swing. I love what I call one of the greatest time melodies ever, swing. That's America.

It comes from all kinds of music. For me, I didn't get it at three years old from a Count Basie record. I did not too long after that but I heard [the song] in a two feel. That's why I wanted the bass thing at the beginning because it's so iconic. That [sings opening bassline]. The bass plays on the one and the three and the drums swing.

His artistry was something else: He had the humor, it swung, and he had serious songs. Like "One Dyin' and a Buryin'," which is a deep song about suicide, really. The scat singing he did on "Dang Me" and all those other [songs he wrote]. To me, it's just such a part of my sound. Part of my sonic story for sure.

How important is a shared sense of humor in keeping a band together?

It's so much about trust.

Sometimes trust comes to when you want to try something, and they question it, you know, I mean, that's, that's good. You don't want "yes people" all the time. I mean, not that bad happens very often. I have such a great relationship with Chris and Kirk and Jeff. Especially Jeff. We collaborate on my projects and projects for other people.

Nobody does anything by themselves, you have to have a good partner. So, you know, you find these people that, that you trust, and that trust in you and believe in you and you collaborate. So that collaborative spirit to me is so important.

I guess it's a treat to have a band together that long and done different things; you travel that much and we have our own little language, you know, apart from the music. And we have that.

How are you feeling without really having a series of gigs on the horizon? Is it frustrating to essentially be stuck at home?

You know, the way I look at it, Jedd, a little bit is this: I've gotten to be in the pool quite a bit. If the lifeguard is blowing the whistle and we have to get out of the pool for a little while, I'm OK with it. The thing is, I know it's pretty much universal. I know there're some live performances going on in Wichita, which is great; a lot of places, it's really shut down, New York especially. So we just hope that [live performance] can come back in some kind of form and that the places can survive. [That's] one of the main things and that the institutions can survive. That's one of our biggest wishes and our biggest hopes. We're just trying to keep it alive in some sort of way.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.