Spring 2012

Painting in Percussion

Matt Wilson
Photo by Jimmy Katz
Named DownBeat's No. 1 Rising Star Drummer no fewer than five
times, Matt Wilson sports an eclectic sense of humor that comes
through in his musical artistry.

In February, Matt Wilson '86 released his fourth album as leader of Arts & Crafts, one of two groups he's built an impressive body of work with on the Palmetto label.

Titled An Attitude For Gratitude, this newest work could reflect the drummer's appreciation for the host of awards he's won, the heroes he's met, the education he's gained or the many other percussionists he's inspired. In its way, it does.

But his main inspiration is much closer to him than that –– his wife, Felicia (Griffin) '86/87, and her struggle with leukemia. Wilson says that they continue to be grateful for all the support they received from family and friends and colleagues.

"It's a sonic thank you note to a lot of folks," he says, his normal exuberant and expressive voice quieting almost to a whisper. "Music is important, but in the long run, there are things that are more important. I don't take myself too seriously, and this was a good reminder that there are other things you have to stop and take note of." He adds that, although her health is not absolutely clear, Felicia has been able to return to her job as a high school orchestra teacher and that their family –– they have four children, including triplet sons –– remains intact and thankful. "The music community and our community here in New York has been great."

An Illinois native, Wilson met Wichita State emeritus professor of music J.C. Combs at a percussion symposium at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "It was the summer of '81," Wilson recalls, "I'll never forget meeting him. He gave a class and I thought, ‘Well, who is this guy?' There were all these drum celebs there. But he was able to give us small victories and really inspire us. I was blown away by his ability to teach me things through making simple statements or small suggestions."

Wilson made his way to WSU where he met a number of like-minded musicians and became a hard-working drummer, gigging with the rockabilly outfit The Del Rays, plus Dwight Killian, the Steve Story Band with Michael Cox, and Gordon Schragg, amassing some 300 shows in one year.

He also found time to give lessons himself. Having started teaching younger players while still in high school, he knew almost immediately that he could convey the power of percussion to others. Most importantly, he says, he continues to learn. "I don't take formal lessons anymore, but I go to workshops and I listen. I listen to what people have to say, and I'm willing to try things they suggest."

He again mentions Combs' teaching, pointing out that his mentor had percussion students present ideas in master classes. That, he says, was fundamentally important. "That's good pedagogy," he offers. "It's necessary to teach today. It's a matter of survival. There's really no way around it. Aside from a select few in the jazz world, almost everybody has some sort of affiliation with education, whether a college teaching job or workshops."

Combs says that Wilson was a fast and eager learner. "He was like a conduit or a sponge. He was involved in pretty much every school activity he could be, but he'd also go out and get jobs with all kinds of different bands. He was so good that they'd think he specialized in that style of drumming. They'd call up and say, ‘Who was that really great polka drummer? Who was that country drummer?' He incorporated all those styles into his playing, even though his focus was jazz."

Matt Wilson
Wilson has built a strong body of work with two bands
–– his namesake group and Arts & Crafts –– during his
15-year association with Palmetto Records.

Combs has followed his former student's career. "He's gone to such a high level," he says. "To play with Herbie Hancock at the White House and make the cover of DownBeat and Jazz Times in the same month and to be named No. 1 Rising Star Drummer in the DownBeat critics' poll five years in a row? That's something none of my other students have done."

Plus, Combs adds, "Matt has an amazing sense of humor, which really comes through in his music." In Combs' opinion Wilson's best non-musical attribute is his sense of loyalty. "Every time he does a clinic, whether in the U.S., or Europe or South America," Combs notes, "Matt always talks about where he came from. That isn't always the case. Sometimes people forget their roots. He hasn't. He's been a real cheerleader for Wichita State."

By the close of the 1980s, Wilson was living in Boston where he joined Either/Orchestra, featuring keyboardist John Medeski (later of Medeski Martin & Wood) and led by saxophonist Russ Gershon. Although Either/Orchestra garnered rave reviews, Wilson and his wife left Boston for New York City. Once there, he truly found his stride, and critical recognition for his work has grown steadily during his time in the Big Apple. Not long after arriving, he signed to Palmetto Records, recording his first album in 1996 and releasing nine more. That first album, As Wave Follows Wave, was selected by the New York Times as one of the 10 best albums of the year.

Other accolades have followed: In addition to his multiple plaudits in DownBeat, he placed among the top four drummers in Jazz Times' 2010 readers' poll, and the Jazz Journalists Association named him Drummer of the Year in 2003. In toto, he has appeared on more than 250 recordings, amassing credits beside jazz legends Charlie Haden, Lee Konitz, and Joe Lovano; he has performed with John Zorn, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, and Elvis Costello. He also played on the Grammy-nominated album Meeting Of The Spirits by master cellist Matt Haimovitz.

And Wilson has performed in front of two former U.S. presidents and Barack Obama at a state dinner for China. When the call came for the gig, he initially turned it down. His wife's leukemia was in a critical stage, and they were preparing for another round of treatments; she insisted that he call back and take the gig.

"It was cool to play with Herbie Hancock," he says, as he rattles off the names of attendees, including Jackie Chan, Nancy Pelosi and Barbra Streisand.

"I got to kiss the First Lady on the cheek," he adds with a laugh. "You can tell people that you've played the most famous jazz club in the world, but a lot of people won't recognize that. You say you've played the White House — and everybody knows the White House."

One of his biggest nods of approval also came that night. "Bill Clinton sat right in front of me," he says. "Watching him listen to music was pretty great. We opened with Herbie Hancock's ‘Watermelon Man' and when we finished, President Clinton gave me a kind of thumbs up."

Jazz in its many forms appears to be as vibrant today as ever — perhaps even more so. Storied artists such as Gary Burton and Joe Lovano have begun taking in next-generation players, passing the music along. Wilson is among those who've joined the charge, sharing a master's knowing with eager pupils. He's also become a champion of regional scenes throughout the country, but it's clear, talking to him, that he's most enthusiastic about live performance, the arena in which jazz truly thrives, where improvisation and chance are the true masters.

"Sometimes you're risking more failure when you do that, when you're not being safe. But I think it's worth the chance," he says. "My father-in-law said, ‘You know, Matt, I think it's great that you get to get up there and make things up.' I said, ‘You know what, you're right.'

"It is pretty cool that musicians can start with a sound, then someone joins in and all of a sudden –– Wow! –– you have something really happening. That's hip."


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Painting in Percussion

Named DownBeat's No. 1 Rising Star Drummer no fewer than five times, Matt Wilson sports an eclectic sense of humor that comes through in his musical artistry.