Wednesday night we went to see the Matt Wilson Arts & Crafts jazz ensemble. Part of the Athenaeum Jazz at the Neurosciences Institute series. Good good good. They started off with some Thelonius Monk – it took them a couple minutes to hit their stride, but what a stride they hit.
Matt Wilson is a great drummer. He’s got these amazing expressions on stage – if it weren’t for the shock of gray up front, you’d think he was 17. He likes to experiment with the sound – banging on every part of the drum kit, blowing whistles and harmonicas, dropping things on the stage, and using his hands to play everything. The down side of all the experimentation is that it occasionally comes off gimmicky. But when it works, there are some great moments. Amazing variations in tone from what seem like simple instruments. He used what looked like a normal egg shaker, but he was opening and closing his hand in a way that was making a huge range of sounds. And some of the stuff he was doing with the brushes and the crash cymbals was magic.
One of the other highlights was a real live Hammond B-3 organ. I’ve heard them in all kinds of recordings, and everyone knows the sound even if they don’t know what it comes from. My first thought on seeing it was that this is a group on tour, and this thing looks like a real bear to lug around. Organ console with pedals, plus the big speaker case. And with the ancient technology inside, it’s probably really susceptible to gremlins when it’s moved.
The sounds that this thing can make. Growls, barks, moans, wails. There’s that basic gospel organ sound – you expect a robed choir to come swaying down the aisle. But the organ can be so much more. I’d kind of had the impression that playing various electronic keyboard instruments could have lots of keyboard technique, but the sounds were kind of pre-packaged. But with this thing, each little nudge and tweak of the sliders and switches gives a new sound. It kind of felt like a painter mixing the colors in real time instead of just taking what came out of the tubes. I was a little disappointed that Gary Versace didn’t do more with the pedals – it was all fingers for him, but a great sound.
Dan and I both had the same reaction to the concert: jazz (at least of this ilk) has become a parallel universe to classical music. The musicians are just as skilled, and the music is just as thoughtful. It’s working with very different harmonic and structural forms, of course. But like the most interesting classical music, the forms aren’t taken for granted. They push and play and twist and experiment. And they think in long arcs. It’s art music in the best sense.