Anthony Wilson

Photo: Armond Bagdasarian


"What sets Wilson apart from the pack is his fresh approach to older styles of jazz. The ideas are logical and poetic, the sound timeless and forward-looking."

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 total scream."

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.

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