The value of the jazz community most frequently becomes apparent when sharing the joy that the music brings. But jazz as a community, in addition to jazz as an art form, rises to a higher level when those within it provide support during important occasions or at times of need. Such is the case of the Jazz Foundation of America, which provides goods, services and medical care to jazz musicians in need to the extent of its resources. In Matt Wilson’s case, his jazz family—for he does call the musicians in his bands his “Big Happy Family”—surrounded him with a family’s love and support when his wife and soulmate Felicia passed away from leukemia at the age of 50 in 2014. While the “Big Happy Family” is of course no substitute for Wilson’s immediate family of daughter Audrey and triplet sons Henry, Max and Ethan, it provides a supplement to the family closest to him—an extended family of musicians not related to Wilson except by spirit.
Violinist Felicia Wilson sometimes participated in Wilson’s concerts or albums, Humidity being a prime example, and she enthusiastically supported Matt Wilson’s activities by her attendance at performances and recording sessions. As a result, all of the members of Wilson’s three bands—the Matt Wilson Quartet, Arts & Crafts and Christmas Tree-O—knew her, and they all enjoyed special moments with her. So, it was appropriate, when he was ready, that Wilson reconvene his bands in a musical celebration of Felicia’s life, which coincided with his 20th anniversary on the Palmetto label.
Felicia favored some of Wilson’s compositions over others, and those are the ones that Matt included on his new album, Beginning of a Memory. From that selection, it’s obvious that both Matt and Felicia shared a similar sense of wackiness and delight, not to mention love of family. The album includes previously recorded pieces like the wild and free and pugnacious “Schoolboy Thug” from Going Once, Going Twice, the cleverly titled and swinging “No Outerwear” (based on the changes of “Out of Nowhere) from An Attitude for Gratitude, and the reverent “July Hymn” from As Wave Follows Wave. Initially in 1998 a tribute to Don Cherry, “July Hymn” succinctly ends the album with the free improvisation that distinguishes the album, but also with spirituality through remembrance of the person for whom love and loss are expressed through music.
That remembrance is not one of sadness, but of the complexity and selflessness of Felicia’s personality, which suggests her moments of fun or wonder or appreciation or “nuttiness,” as Matt describes it. As a result, trusting the members of his groups as he does, Matt not just allowed, but encouraged, them to play freely without arrangements or rehearsal. The spontaneity provides the expressiveness as an idea occurs to one musician and then conveys to another for give-and-take. Unrestricted wildness contrasted with reverence occurs as he merges of all of his bands into one. The freshness and emotion of the music are thus genuine as it’s expressed immediately during the recording session. Wilson’s role isn’t so much as a drummer with the aggressive personality of Buddy Rich or Art Blakey, but rather as a leader who sets up the circumstances for his quirky, witty, exhilarating and characteristic style, to which his band responds. For instance, “Searchlight” from Going Once, Going Twice starts with a Carl Stalling-like comical bass line and bass clarinet accents before saxophone chorus suavity gives way to mayhem. That mayhem, animated by Wilson’s drumming, involves the spur-of-the-moment exchange of ideas between Jeff Lederer’s clarinet and Joel Frahm’s soprano saxophone that makes the piece exciting not only for the listener, but also for the musicians.
So important was the album to the out-of-town “Big Happy Family” members that Larry Goldings submitted from Los Angeles his version of “How Ya Goin’?” first recorded on Gathering Call, while Yosuke Inoue transmitted his bass solo from Japan for “Endless Love,” which is attached to the frenzied “Go Team Go!” first heard on Smile.
But it’s the new compositions, written for the release of this album, that bring home the sense of loss that the family/families feel, even as they celebrates the uniqueness of Felicia’s spirit by explaining musically why everyone associated with the recording loves her. “Flowers for Felicia” fuses Matt’s composition, “Orchids,” beautifully brought to life by solos from Terell Stafford and Lederer, with “Wildwood Flower.” The remembrance springs from the fact that Felicia enjoyed orchids, which Charlie and Ruth Haden would send to her, as well as listening to the Carter Family’s recording of the second song. The title track gathers the entire “Big Happy Family” in an improvised recapture of Felicia’s performance of the melody of “Beginning of a Memory” from the album of Humidity, as if each member were given an opportunity to reminisce about her musically by remembering her notes instead of her words.
Such a close and wonderful family of Matt and Felicia’s.
Artist’s site: www.mattwilsonjazz.com