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Brooklyn drummer Matt Wilson keeps busy with many bands and projects — other people's and his own. Two new Wilson albums find him as part of a co-op all-star trio, and at the helm of one of his own quartets. Part of Wilson's appeal is that he keeps things light, in a good way.
In "Don Knotts," from The Great House, it figures that Matt Wilson digs the great physical comedian; he's funny himself, and drummers also know about offhand dexterity and split-second timing. The occasional collective Trio M teams Wilson with two players who are serious in the best sense: pianist Myra Melford and Mark Dresser, who gets a massive sound from the bass violin. His plucked notes can thunder and quiver at the same time.
Pianist Myra Melford picked up percussive strategies from Chicago blues and free jazz, as well as a way of developing phrases informed by her studies of North Indian music. Her best, economical improvisations have pinpoint clarity: PowerPoint piano. The dash of levity Wilson adds is just the leavening the trio needs.
The push and pull of Trio M creates a good setting for each of these players. Wilson's light touch is even more pronounced on his other new album, with his quartet Arts & Crafts, called An Attitude for Gratitude. Its excellence is partly due to the players — bassist Martin Wind, gorgeous-sounding trumpeter Terrell Stafford and the droll pianist and organist Gary Versace. The other reason the album's so good is Wilson's knack for writing spry tunes, and for picking ones by other composers that inspire his players, like John Scofield's mambo, "You Bet."
Stafford's playing on "You Bet" is brilliant but a little manic, and speaks to the heart of this quartet's appeal: The players all get on Matt Wilson's slightly warped wavelength. Not that he won't play it straight. His drums can steer the band or melt into the background, with a rustle of wire brushes on snare drum. You can hear that side of Wilson's playing in the 1929 song "Happy Days Are Here Again," in a downbeat version cribbed from Barbra Streisand's.
That performance is a sly joke, if you recognize the song: a teary version of a cheery tune. There are other odd strokes on Wilson's new album with Arts & Crafts. Nat Adderley's sprightly "Little Boy With the Sad Eyes" starts like we're in a somber church, but then a party breaks out in the organ loft. To offset that, there's a lovely trio version of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" played totally straight. Laughs are great, but, as I'm often reminded around the house, not all the time.