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Beginning of a Memory - Matt Wilson's Big Happy Family: CD Review


Beginning of a Memory - Matt Wilson’s Big Happy Family


Matt Wilson – Drums

Terrell Stafford – Trumpet

Kirk Knuffke – Cornet

Jeff Lederer – Tenor, soprano saxophones, clarinet

Joel Frahm – Tenor, soprano saxophones

Andrew D’Angelo – Alto saxophone, bass clarinet

Gary Versace – Piano, organ, accordion

Larry Goldings – Piano

Martin Wind – Acoustic bass

Paul Sikivie – Acoustic bass

Yosuke Inoue – Acoustic bass

Chris Lightcap – Acoustic and electric bass

Matt Balitsaris – Acoustic guitar and dobro

It can be difficult to paint a jazz album with a programmatic tone. Jazz is based on the emergent, spontaneous “whimsies” of improvisation. But those whimsies do not always agree with the preconceived tone of an album, particularly a devastatingly tragic tone, as defined by the loss of Matt Wilson’s wife Felicia to cancer. Amazingly, Wilson facilitates a beautiful tribute to his beloved wife, not by trying to control the tone of the album, but by allowing such spontaneous whimsies to prevail. As a result, some tracks are sad, while some are joyous or reflective. The recording almost works as a beautiful photo album, presenting personal memories of a variety of experiences and emotions, each memory vivid and moving in its own way.

Wilson’s Big Happy Family is represented on each track by various combinations of musicians who have performed with him in the past. This includes members of one of his first quartets as a leader, his popular Arts & Crafts jazz group, and members of his more recent, adventurous groups such as the band Christmas Tree-O. Wilson is a gem of the jazz community, and one cannot imagine that he has ever played a cymbal crash or a brush stroke that was not sincere and emotive. On top of his expressive capacity, Wilson also possesses an unbelievable swing feel and a penchant for unorthodox timbre exploration, often through auxiliary percussion instruments.

“Score!” leads off the recording with a brief brassy feature, sounding somewhat evocative of a New Orleans ragtime band. “Lester,” a track that Wilson recorded with Arts & Crafts, evokes the hipness of Lester Bowie and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, featuring the dynamic dual trumpet/cornet solos of Stafford and Knuffke. Wilson is a virtuosic cymbal dynamo on “Searchlight,” one of the hippest tracks on record. Beginning with a noirish bass line and a bass clarinet melodic fragment, the track evolves into a scintillating group improvisation between all three saxophonists, Frahm, D’Angelo and Lederer.

“How Ya Goin’” is a delightful gospel-tinged solo piano outing by the inimitable Larry Goldings. Another album highlight is “No Outerwear,” which sounds loosely based on the jazz standard, “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” The track leads off with a delightful piano solo from Versace. Moreover, this is the first time that this reviewer has encountered Frahm and Stafford on the same track. The results are joyous, combining Frahm’s seemingly endless stream-of-consciousness imagination with Stafford’s golden sound and impeccable pocket.

“Flowers for Felicia” evolves from its looser beginnings into a very moving version of “Amazing Grace,” mostly due to the dynamic playing of Versace and Wilson. One of the true pearls of the album is “25 Years of Rootabagas,” where Versace’s accordion work adds a wonderful rustic folk element to the proceedings. “Feel the Sway” has become a recognizable calling card for Wilson’s Arts & Crafts group, and this version with Big Happy Family features an amazing duo between Wilson and his frequent bass compatriot, Martin Wind. “July Hymn” ends the recording with beautiful textures that sound almost evocative of a chorale. Beginning of a Memory is a highly recommended eclectic jazz recording.

—Dan Healy

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