A few years ago at the Newport Jazz Festival, drummer, composer, and bandleader Matt Wilson introduced his tune “Bubbles” by setting up a toy bubble machine downstage. But the toy wasn’t cooperating. As the band vamped behind him, Wilson spread his arms wide toward the audience and said, sotto voce, “Imagine bubbles!”
It was a signature Wilson moment: introducing a playfully toy-like tune with a toy prop. Even the prop’s malfunction somehow fit the whole Wilson ethos. That moment was part of a musically ambitious set that included tunes in which Wilson’s quartet was augmented by a string quartet (with his wife, Felicia, on violin). It was serious, often challenging music, presented with a sense of humor, and Wilson and his group held the audience in the palm of their hands.
“When you ‘entertain’ someone, that’s not a bad word,” says Wilson, 49, from his home in Baldwin, Long Island. “When you’re entertaining, you’re being gracious, you’re welcoming them in to be part of the process.”
That kind of exuberant engagement also translates to CD, as can be heard on the new “Gathering Call” (Wilson’s 11th album as a leader), where the quartet is joined by pianist John Medeski, of Medeski Martin & Wood, an old friend from Wilson’s ’80s stint with Boston’s Either/Orchestra. The Wilson quartet, with Medeski, comes to Scullers this Wednesday.
The new disc is characterized by a mix of hard-driving hard bop, well-chosen jazz covers (including a couple by Duke Ellington), and Wilson’s more open-ended compositions with passages of free collective romp. It also, typically for Wilson, includes a contemporary pop hit — Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy,” the melody lovingly caressed by trumpeter Kirk Knuffke and saxophonist Jeff Lederer over Chris Lightcap’s bass and Wilson’s soft cymbal taps before Medeski arrives at the bridge and tears off into a free fantasy.
“That’s when my boys (triplets) started paying attention to the radio,” says Wilson of the Beyoncé. “I love that record. I love her approach, the great melodies that she finds, composers she finds who write nice things with bridges. I thought it would be fun to do.”
He cites the late trumpeter Lester Bowie; his old boss, the saxophonist Dewey Redman; and the Either/Orchestra as models for finding oddball pop covers. The advantage of playing a familiar pop tune, says Wilson, is that “it gives the audience a great barometer of what you’re doing with it.”
“Matt was already a bit of a road veteran by the time he hooked up with us,” says Either/Orchestra leader Russ Gershon. “He had toured the Midwest (Wilson is from Knoxville, Ill.) playing for non-jazz audiences, and he understood that entertaining the people and making them feel good was a big part of what you do if you want to be a performer. And that entertainment quality can go part and parcel with taking the audience new places.”
Perhaps that’s why “Gathering Call” is as challenging as it is charming, and why the band can make an oft-played chestnut like Ellington’s “Main Stem” sound brand-new. In their solos, the band picks up on the leaning-forward swing of Ellington’s central riff — Knuffke cutting across it at an angle with his crafted lines, Lederer slashing away with his broad, take-no-prisoners tone. Instead of offering polite solo turns, the two horn players make quick exchanges and are soon overlapping in ecstatic counterlines.
“You can play ‘Main Stem’ and it can be 2014,” says Wilson. “It doesn’t have to be, ‘Oh, we’re re-creating something.’ ”
“A lot of jazz musicians aren’t improvisers in the truest sense,” says Medeski. “They practice their licks, they have an ego-driven agenda, and that’s what they play every time. In Matt’s band, everyone is a composer or arranger in their own right, and they play like that — they react.”
For Medeski, the key was to try to fit in with a band that usually plays without a chording instrument like piano or guitar. Aside from more traditional fare (and that Beyoncé cover), Wilson’s own tunes tend toward the “chordless” folk-like melodies of Ornette Coleman (check “Some Assembly Required” or the title track from the new album). Which is one of the reasons Medeski sometimes plays like a third horn, inventing his own lines alongside Knuffke and Lederer as often as he “comps” chordal accompaniment. His sensitivity also makes him a valuable asset on lovely, ballad tempo chamber-jazz pieces like Wilson’s “Hope (For the Cause).”
“John’s instincts are so incredible,” says Wilson. “And his openness. He’s ready for anything. He always has been! It’s not about virtuosity, it’s about intent. It’s not ego, it’s just confidence. We’ve had that in common for a long, long time.”
Aside from leading his own bands (he also fronts Matt Wilson’s Arts & Crafts with trumpeter Terell Stafford and keyboardist/accordionist Gary Versace), Wilson is part of Trio M, with pianist Myra Melford and bassist Mark Dresser, and Sifter, with Knuffke and guitarist Mary Halvorson. And he’s long been an in-demand sideman with everyone from Redman and Joe Lovano to Lee Konitz and Elvis Costello.
In the meantime, Wilson’s natural jubilance has made him a favorite at music-education conferences and in master classes, where he emphasizes the importance of reaching out to an audience.
“. . . And also just to have people express joy,” he adds. “I don’t know where that went out, where people can’t look like they’re having fun up there doing this. I do!”