Full of his customary pzazz behind the drum set and on the microphone, Wilson led two sets last night at Jimmy Mak’s, one of the prime small venues at the Portland Jazz Festival. He and his fellow Arts And Crafters hewed more or less to the repertoire of their most recent CD, An Atitude for Gratitude. For Wilson, trumpeter Terell Stafford, bassist Martin Wind and pianist-organist-accordianist Gary Versace, “more or less” is the operative term. They thrive on flexibility and the unexpected. The band is likely to surprise an audience expecting to experience a piece as they heard it on a Wilson album, and the players thrive on catching one another unawares.
On an older Wilson piece called “Free Range Chickens,” he pressed a flexible stick onto the rim of his snare drum, vibrating it to set up a series of doppler effects, then produced a wooden flute and played a series of minor tones that melded with the twanging. That inspired Versace to add a layer of Middle Eastern organ sounds as Wilson expanded on a boogaloo thought that had run through his doppler episode a few minutes earlier. Stafford joined Versace’s caravan, soloing with a plunger mute as Bubber Miley might have used it if Miley had been from Abu Dhabi or Dohi. When it was Versace’s turn to solo, he cranked up the exoticism. Head back, eyes closed, lip synching or singing along with the hypnotic modal lines he was playing. Stafford soloed again, this time using a Harmon mute as a plunger. “I’ve never seen him do that before,” Wind said later. Stafford switched back to the rubber plunger and ended the solo with whinnies that harkened back to the vaudevillian animal sounds that Buddy Bolden is said to have made with his horn in the early days of New Orleans jazz. Wilson wasn’t through. He played another solo in which he used a towel in place of one of his sticks. “How can he keep the time straight doing that?” a woman next to me said. They took the piece out with Stafford plungering and slowly fading the volume to a conclusion that was more felt than heard.
“What a hip audience,” Wilson said, giving the crowd credit for inspiring the band. “Crazy s___ happens.”
A few other highlights:
Wind’s masterly solo on “The Cruise Blues,” a composition of his with an extra bar that gives the piece an air of expectance.
Thelonious Monk’s “We See,” with Stafford, and then Versace, using note patterns slightly off-center from the usual chords for an effect jazz players of earlier generations called “running out of key.” The practice long since became part of the jazz tool box. It can be annoying when overdone. Stafford and Versace didn’t overdo it.
Versace on accordion, Stafford on trumpet establishing what sounded like a MiddleEuropean folk tune, then free jazz, then Wilson and Versace in a very funny duet in which Wilson broke up the time without losing the swing. Wind soloed with his bow, using repeated notes with a variety of pitches. The piece turned out to be Wlson’s composition “Bubbles,” which he closed by reciting the poem of that name by his hero Carl Sandburg.
With Stafford sitting out, the rhythm section played “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” so moving, thanks to the pungency of Versace’s chord voicings and the delicacy of Wilson’s brush work, that the woman who earlier wondered about keeping the time straight had tears in her eyes.