Matt Wilson: 'I Hear Melody In All Rhythm'

Jun 23, 2012
Originally published on June 23, 2012 5:42 pm

By day, jazz drummer Matt Wilson teaches his craft at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. By night, he practices it with legends like Lee Konitz at storied venues like the Village Vanguard. His band Arts and Crafts, which features Terell Stafford (trumpet), Gary Versace (piano, organ and accordion) and Martin Wind (bass), has a new album called An Attitude for Gratitude.

Wilson says he discovered the drums in the first grade, while listening to records by old-school timekeepers like Buddy Rich and Max Roach.

"When I heard Max Roach — I'll never forget it — it was a summer day," Wilson tells NPR's Guy Raz. "I heard that kind of playing, the drums really singing, and that's when it started to really come together."

Wilson says he isn't exaggerating when he describes percussion as "singing."

"For me, I feel that the drums are a strong melodic instrument," he says. "I hear melody in all rhythm."

The element of the drum set that carries that melody, Wilson says, is the ride cymbal.

"It's really part of the sound," he says. "Like Terell Stafford, for example: He says all the music really comes from the ride cymbal. He's a trumpet player. He says everything really emerges from that sound."

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And in case you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.


RAZ: We're listening to new music from jazz drummer Matt Wilson with his quartet Arts and Crafts.


RAZ: Matt Wilson's latest album is called "An Attitude for Gratitude." There are reasons for that title, which we'll get to later. But first, a little more about Matt. He's played with many of the greats - Hancock, Marsalis, Frisell - and his style is widely respected for its depth and complexity, all while being accessible and even fun.


RAZ: Matt Wilson, welcome to the program.

MATT WILSON: Thank you. Thank you, Guy. It's a pleasure to be here.

RAZ: When did you start playing drums?

WILSON: I was in the first grade and - or second grade, actually - I was watching the "Lucy Show." And Buddy Rich was a guest on the show. Ricky, Lucy's son, was a contestant in a drum contest, and Buddy was the judge, but she was trying to get him lessons with Buddy. And then this whole bag exchange occurred where Lucy ended up with Buddy's bag that had his cymbals, so he had to come over to the house and retrieve the bag.

It's actually on YouTube now, the episode, so it's pretty funny to go back and watch it and see where I became sort of like, wow, that's something I'd like to do. And then I heard a record - a buddy of mine had a record with Buddy Rich versus Max Roach. And when I heard Max Roach, I'll never forget it was a summer day we're sitting in his room listening to this record.


WILSON: That's when the whole concept started right there. I heard that kind of playing, the drums really singing, and that's when it started to really come together.

RAZ: You have actually been quoted as saying that playing music is like playing in the sandbox.

WILSON: Yeah. I love to have a great time. I mean, to me, it's a celebration. And I think the reason I'm that way is because I'm constantly amazed by what can happen, you know, improvising and welcoming sound.


WILSON: My father-in-law said at one time to me - he said to me, he goes: I think it's so great that you guys can just get out there and make things up. And I sat there for a second, and I said: You know what? You're right.


WILSON: I think that's why I sort of remain this enthusiastic about it all the time because it's always surprising.


RAZ: It's interesting that you got into drumming by watching the "Lucy Show" because there's a tune that starts out like something from an old kids' show from the '50s or even music from a vaudeville routine, the song "Bubbles." I understand that's inspired by a Carl Sandburg poem, actually.

WILSON: Yeah. Mr. Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Illinois, and I grew up in a town just adjacent to that town, Knoxville, Illinois. We studied his poetry as children, and my great-great-aunt was married to Carl Sandburg's first cousin, Charlie Krans. So we sort of had this sort of almost relation to him in a certain way. And I always really loved the poetry.

And I received a grant from Chamber Music America to write a bunch of music to Mr. Sandburg's poetry, and this one was actually a later one that I wrote. But sometimes, they just speak to you. And I thought: Oh, this'll work perfectly for a tune. So that's why I chose that particular poem and that particular way of writing the tune, to have that sort of enthusiasm and joy and also just a kind of reckless abandon for life in that tune. So I think we conveyed that quite well.


WILSON: (Reading) Two bubbles found they had rainbow on their curves. And they flickered out saying, you know, it was worth being a bubble just to have held that rainbow for 30 seconds.


WILSON: I think it's a great message. And you never - and sometimes at gigs, we blow bubbles. And I think it gives people another chance to sort of feel part of it. That's what I really feel, like, that I want to do in performances is really involve the people. I always say that the more that you can get people to laugh, the more chances you have to really touch them to cry. And on recent tours, we've had people sob during a couple of our ballads and stuff - it was pretty touching - and at the same time having them really walk away laughing and having a great time.

So I always think - sort of think about, like when great sitcoms have poignant moments. You know, you really feel for the characters because you've laughed with them so much. So I feel like I want to present not only a wider range of music in an evening but a wide range of emotions.

RAZ: I'm speaking with the drummer and band leader Matt Wilson. His new album with his Arts and Crafts quartet is called "An Attitude for Gratitude."


RAZ: Matt, one of the founding members of Arts and Crafts, Dennis Irwin, he died back in 2008, and there's a track on this record that's played by your trumpeter...

WILSON: Terell Stafford. Yeah...

RAZ: ...Terell Stafford.

WILSON: Yeah. He plays "There's No You," this great old standard. We recorded it on the very first Arts and Crafts record, actually, that we just called "Arts and Crafts." On gigs, he would sing it and play it himself, you know, a cappella, and play it. And it was always amazing. Dennis was a great spirit in music. I mean, I think he loved being in this particular project because I gave him sort of free rein to do whatever he wanted. And in his memory, I thought it would be really great to just have Terell, who's an amazing voice of the trumpet, just sing that tune a cappella on the trumpet.

RAZ: You went through that. Your family also had a scare with your wife, Felicia, who's also a - I should mention - a violinist. She actually underwent a stem cell transplant after she was diagnosed with leukemia.


RAZ: I can't imagine you've had an easy few years.

WILSON: Yeah. It's been a - and it kind of remains a challenge, though she's doing great. But we've learned a lot, and we've been grateful. Again, "An Attitude for Gratitude" means we're grateful that things have turned around. And she's back teaching and playing, and the kids have been great. So I guess I wanted to make sort of a sonic thank you card to folks. And I think this record was a way of doing that.


WILSON: We'll celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary in July. So we've been together for...

RAZ: Congratulations.

WILSON: Yeah. Thank you. We've been together for a long time. We met at - freshman year of college, actually, at Wichita State University. So we've been together for a long, long time. And so it was just a blow when that happened in October of 2011 - or 2010, excuse me. So, yeah, it's been quite a year.


WILSON: We're actually going to go on vacation here in a few weeks, so we're looking forward to that and - with everyone, the whole family. So we'll have a great time.

RAZ: That's jazz drummer and band leader Matt Wilson. His latest album is called "Attitude for Gratitude." Matt Wilson, thank you so much.

WILSON: Thank you, Guy.


RAZ: And you can hear more of Matt Wilson's music from "An Attitude for Gratitude" at our website,


RAZ: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our weekly podcast. It's called WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can find it at iTunes or at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.