Anthony Wilson, the 31-year-old composer-arranger-guitarist,
carved out a distinctive niche in the jazz community with the
release of his self-titled debut CD in 1997 and the follow-up
Goat Hill Junket in 1998. Featuring crackerjack nonets, the albums
introduced an inspired composer and performer with a fresh, identifiable
voice. Wilson's five-horn charts - full of memorable melodies,
propulsive lines and sophisticated orchestration - were a contemporary
blend of the good-time feeling of post-war rhythm-and-blues bands
led by the likes of Louis Jordan and T-Bone Walker, and the thinking-man's
jazz purveyed by Duke Ellington, Gil Evans and Charles Mingus.
No less impressive was his playing; he produced a thick, resonant
cut a la Wes Montgomery and Django Reinhardt, spinning out soulful
improvisations with an air of inevitability.
The critics were convinced: Wilson's debut, Anthony Wilson,
was cited by JazzTimes, Jazziz, The Philadelphia Inquirer and
the Boston Herald as one of 1997's ten best. It hit #1 on the
Gavin Radio jazz charts, and was nominated for a Grammy Award
in the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Performance category. His follow-up,
Goat Hill Junket, was equally embraced by critics. The Village
Voice enthused, "He's the real thing . . . with a voice
and manner all his own . . . and a promise that stretches to
the horizon." And the Boston Herald called Wilson "as
inventive, swinging and entertaining a big band composer and
arranger as anyone working today."
On his third MAMA release, Adult Themes, Wilson continues
to set himself apart from the pack with a fresh approach to older
styles. The recording, which features a cohesive L.A. ensemble
mixing veteran horn stars with fresh youngsters in the rhythm
section, was produced by legendary recording engineer Bones Howe.
Howe has seen and heard it all, with credits ranging from Gerry
Mulligan Meets Ben Webster to Ornette Coleman's Shape of Jazz
To Come and Change of the Century to a slew of recordings for
Pacific Jazz and Mode to subsequent Pop dates by the likes of
Elvis Presley, Michelle Shocked and Tom Waits. "I am incredibly
excited about Anthony," enthuses Howe. "He's a tremendous
talent. And he's not just chasing the same sound that all the
other bands are today. Anthony went back to an era that people
had left hanging, picked it up and brought it forward to today's
world. His music is like a small-band version of the old Dizzy
Gillespie band when Tadd Dameron was writing."
Says Wilson, "I heard Woody Allen say that he makes the
movies he liked when he was a kid. There's something of that
in what I do. I listen to old blues and jazz - I feel that most
naturally, and I love swinging music. But even with that as a
template, there's something else to get to. I'm trying to let
the songs create their own melodic world. I'm also trying to
build interest into each player's part. If their part feels almost
singable and not just a voice in a chord or a structure, they'll
take more liberties to make it musical.I also love the folklore
aspect of jazz. The oral tradition, what you learn by listening
to what somebody tells you, a way of swinging - those things
are interesting to me. When you break it down to the basic elements,
there's a lot of possibility for growth."
Wilson comes by his deep understanding for the tradition honestly.
His father is jazz legend and fellow MAMA artist Gerald Wilson,
a major innovator in modern big band writing and orchestration.
The elder Wilson, a contributor to Ellington, Basie, and Dizzy
Gillespie, came up in the days when big bands played for dancers
and accompanied shows. "I grew up watching my dad lead a
band," Anthony recalls. "He can make a motion, the
whole band will suddenly surge forward, and a new vista of sound
will open, conveying every emotion from a small whisper to a
For all his affinity for the tradition, don't think that Wilson
isn't attuned to the full range of contemporary improvisation.
He studied music composition at Bennington College, where he
formed close attachments to two renowned teachers, both icons
of the avant-garde - trumpeter Bill Dixon and drummer Milford
Graves. "Dixon is the consummate Modernist," Wilson
says, "doing art for art's sake with utter integrity, in
a complete world of his own, answering to nobody. I learned from
him that you have to try to push the envelope. And Milford has
this mystic quality - everything he does or says is like a koan,
a riddle that is its own answer. He's a total musician. He takes
chances in everything he does."
Another influence on Wilson has been his involvement in Rock
and Pop music. He's worked with Lenny Kravitz, singer Lisa Loeb
and toured with French singer Vanessa Paradis. "I can't
imagine being a guitar player nowadays and not being influenced
by rock guitar," he declares. "Bob Dylan was my inspiration
for picking up the guitar at 7 or 8, and I grew up listening
to people like Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. I try
to bring something meaningful to whatever music I'm playing.
It's true that once I fell in love with jazz, my later flirtations
with Rock were a little more false. I didn't really want to go
back, and I decided to pursue my band. I had to make the decision
that I was going to define myself out in the world as what I
feel like I am way down inside.
The orchestrations of several of the tunes in Adult Themes
bespeak Wilson's increasing ability to personalize classic forms.
Consider the evocatively orchestrated "Idle Blues,"
or "Danny Boy" in which Wilson surrounds Jack Nimitz's
husky baritone with warm ensemble colors. There's a darting contrapuntal
arrangement of John Carisi's "Barry's Tune," of which
Wilson comments: "It's a linear, horizontal approach, with
the backgrounds treated more like a fabric." Wilson harmonized
the melody of "Chorale," featuring Jeff Clayton on
alto saxophone "in a way that you might hear an old vocal
piece, a classical approach to harmony," while the delicate,
moody "Invention in Blue" has the sweet Amen cadences
that you hear in old church music.
The ambitious title track is a thematically unified five-part
suite whose kaleidoscopic textures and ingenious juxtapositions
show clearly that Wilson has reached another level of compositional
writing. Commissioned by the International Association of Jazz
Educators in conjunction with Wilson's receipt of the IAJE/Gil
Evans Fellowship Award, the piece may be the composer's most
compelling writing to date.
As a whole, Adult Themes is a work of uncommon scope - the
product of an abundantly creative mind backed by craft honed
from firm jazz bedrock. Now with three stellar albums to his
credit, it is clear that Wilson is one of the most exciting talents
to emerge on the jazz scene in a very long time.