Playfulness Is a Key as Drummer Matt Wilson Gets Into Good Trouble

‘Good Trouble’ is the name of Wilson’s new album and new band, and it illustrates how well the bandleader understands when it’s best to be whimsical and when to get serious.

John Abbott
Good Trouble: Jeff Lederer, Tia Fuller, Matt Wilson, Dawn Clement, and Ben Allison. John Abbott

Matt Wilson
‘Good Trouble’

What I like best about drummer and bandleader Matt Wilson is not only his impeccable sense of rhythm but his boundless capacity for playfulness. Mr. Wilson, who launched both a new album and a new band at Birdland over Memorial Day weekend, has enough respect for the basic tenets of modern jazz not to take them overly seriously.  

No matter what band he leads, from his long-running Arts and Crafts group to his Christmas Tree-O, which he re-forms every year during the holiday season, he always instills a unique kind of capriciousness, which is a fancy way of saying a lot of fun.

On Friday night, his new quintet, Good Trouble, which is also the name of the new album, illustrated how well Mr. Wilson understands when it’s best to be whimsical and when to get serious. 

Where most modern jazz quintets — especially those led by his percussive predecessors, Art Blakey and Shelly Manne — tend to use one brass and one reed, Good Trouble features two saxophonists: on alto is Tia Fuller, a gifted player associated with the pop end of jazz, which doesn’t diminish her abilities to play “straight ahead,” as the more serious jazz pundits used to say, and on tenor and clarinet, itself a rare horn in contemporary jazz circles, is Jeff Lederer. Pianist Dawn Clement and bassist Ben Allison complete the quintet. 

The album and the late set began with “Fireplace,” an original by the leader that also shows his eagerness to play with the received wisdom of jazz. The melody, as plunked out by Ms. Clement, had a Thelonious Monk-ish, “Criss Cross”-like quality, but then rather than a string of solos by everyone in the group, the two saxes alternated: not exactly a chase chorus or a trade of fours, each played roughly a brief chorus and then let the other take over; the two saxes consistently surprised each other and the audience with their unique entrances, and the follow through on each of these comparatively brief solos was no less rewarding.

“Albert’s Alley,” the second piece, was a bluesier melody, composed by Mr. Lederer in honor of his late shih tzu, and featured an expressive solo by Mr. Allison; later in the set, they essayed “Soft Talk” by trombonist Julian Priester, which, despite the title, is as solid a slice of hard bop as has ever been heard at Birdland.

Mr. Wilson is also unafraid of creatively using singers, such as The Swayettes, a female vocal trio who perform on several of his albums. With Good Trouble, Ms. Clement sings in an understated, breathy soprano on “Be That As It May,” a memorable original with words and music by Akihito Gorai, one of the leader’s drumming students; the lyrics come through more clearly on the recording. 

At Birdland, she also sang on Elvis Costello’s “Someone Took The Words Away,” from the 2003 album “North.” Mr. Wilson told the story of how Mr. Costello came to record the song with Lee Konitz — after hearing him with Mr. Wilson at Birdland 20 years ago — and Ms. Clement, singing, and Mr. Lederer, on clarinet, reminded us what a superior piece of songwriting it is.

Vocals also featured prominently on the central composition of the album and the set, a three-part work titled “Good Trouble Suite” dedicated to two civil rights leaders, Congressman John Lewis and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. It’s to Mr. Wilson’s credit that even a piece set in classical form and inspired by recent politics can be joyful and uplifting. The first number, titled “RBG,” sets the justice’s name to a five-note riff that many of us in the audience started humming even before the composer encouraged us to do so. 

The second movement, “Walk With the Wind,” was slower and more contemplative, even down to the composer’s drum solo — yes, an introspective drum solo. “Good Trouble” provided a wailing finale to the triptych, with an especially churchy solo from Ms. Fuller. 

This was the only announced suite of the set, but Mr. Wilson often makes a point to move from one tune directly into the next, as if they were in a kind of suite form. That was the way he interconnected “Feet Music,” a lesser-known work by Ornette Coleman, with “Sunshine on My Shoulder,” a hit by John Denver, again winningly sung by Ms. Clement.  

This may be the first time anyone has brought these two late composers together, but after hearing the Good Trouble interpretations of both, there’s no doubt that Coleman and Denver would be delighted with each other’s company.

The New York Sun

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