Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O turns beloved holiday songs into improvisational joy rides
Sometimes a drum kit isn’t just a musical instrument. In the hands of Matt Wilson, the quintessentially American trap set is a playground and a fun house, a flying carpet and a rumpus room all rolled into one. It takes nothing away from his consummate musicianship to note that part of what distinguishes Wilson from fellow drum masters is his joyous, mischievous, emotionally unbridled commitment to music making, an approach that gets free rein in his band Christmas Tree-O.
Renowned for his ability to transform just about any song into a thrilling vehicle for improvisation, Wilson and his merry confederates wrap up some beloved holiday songs and send them on a delirious sleigh ride. Featuring the bassist Paul Sikivie, who’s spent the past three years touring and recording with the extraordinary vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, and the brilliantly versatile reed expert Jeff Lederer, Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O (trio, get it?) arrives at Kuumbwa on Monday, Nov. 30 as part of its 16 Days of Christmas Tour.
“I love it as a jazz band,” Wilson says. “It’s so swinging and so fun to play as a trio. It’s a way for us to end the year musically, and each year we get more dates. We’re really taking familiar stuff, like some of my favorite hymns, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter,’ ‘O Come Emmanuel,’ and ‘You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch.’ We don’t do any originals. And we added ‘Eight Little Candles’ to make it a holiday show.”
An Illinois native who still carries himself with the aw-shucks geniality of the Midwest, Wilson has been one of New York’s elite drummers for the past three decades. Appearing on more than 350 albums, he’s recorded with jazz giants such as Lee Konitz, Myra Melford, Joe Lovano, John Scofield, Charlie Haden, Denny Zeitlin, and perhaps most consequently the late tenor sax legend Dewey Redman.
While he’s on faculty at Sarah Lawrence College, Wilson has become a high-profile advocate of informal jazz apprenticeships. And in much the same way that he believes it’s imperative for younger musicians to create meaningful bonds with older players, he sees jazz musicians cutting themselves off from audiences by accepting today’s performance practices as they find them. In a handout that he brings to master classes, he urges aspiring musicians to overcome their self-seriousness (“Be nice! Be happy! Be Grateful! Be!” Wilson writes).
He gets positively passionate on the subject, his eyes lighting up as he rattles off ideas for breaking out of the jazz gig rut. “Don’t play in the auditorium, play in the lunchroom!” Wilson says. “Play at a farm. Bring the music to people in different sorts of ways. We all like to see things in alternative places. Collaborate with local people more. Find out who’s around in your local scene and use them—a blues guitar player, great rock players. I’m here to say the possibilities are endless.”
On a related note, Wilson wants to ensure that upcoming players “don’t think of entertainment as a bad word.” He hearkens back to a time when jazz was dominated by big personalities, and not necessarily all life-of-the-party extroverts. “Joe Lovano and I talk about this all the time, about jazz’s great characters,” Wilson says. “Dizzy was a character. Monk was a character. Louie Bellson. We could list them all day. There were all kinds of characters, and they had personalities.”
He puts many of these ideas into practice in his own bands, particularly Christmas Tree-O, a group designed to meet listeners in a cozy corner of their aural memory banks before swooping off into unknown realms. And, like any good party, there’s always room for one or two more. Over the years, cats like Joe Lovano, Jason Moran, Cécile McLoren Salvant, Esperanza Spalding, and the vocal trio Duchess have all dropped by to sit in with the group.
“We always have guests come up and play with us,” Wilson says. “It’s a really welcoming environment, and I like to keep it pretty wide open. We have a few attire things now that we’ve adopted too, matching red velvet jackets. I’m not holding back. I know the music is at an incredibly high level and by making it fun we’re not sacrificing anything musically.”
INFO: 7 p.m. Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. $25/adv, $30/door. 427-2227.
HORN SECTION Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O comes to the Kuumbwa on Monday, Nov. 30. PHOTO: FRAN KAUFMAN