Friday, April 20, 2007 @ The Blue Room
Despite the cover charge and bar tab, it felt more like a house party.
Matt Wilson's Arts & Crafts played three solid sets of top-shelf jazz last Friday at the Blue Room. In the two long breaks in between, the band milled among the tables glad-handing the well-wishers. Arts & Crafts trumpeter Terrell Stafford chatted with local pianist and singer Pamela Baskin-Watson. Local bassist Gerald Spaits worked the room. The Folly's Doug Tatum hung out in a corner with Columbia promoter Jon Poses plotting next year's jazz series at the Folly. A group of hepsters from the UMKC Jazz program (I'm just guessing, they could also be from Jim Mair's jazz program at KCK Community College) called out requests that were honored. Organ-meister Ken Lovern floated in and back out.
In the midst of it all, beer in hand was our host, Matt Wilson. Wilson is a tall job. He looks like the human you'd get if you combined Al Franken and Tim Robbins. He laughs easily on stage and off the high spirits seem to be contagious. Keyboard wizard Gary Versace got out his accordion. Bassist Dennis Irwin told a joke and later brought out his clarinet for a couple numbers.
There's good reason for Wilson to feel comfortable around here. Though he lives in New York now, Wilson grew up in Central Illinois and went to college in Wichita where he studied with Dr. J.C. Combs. I overheard him say he's got family in Springfield and Neosho.
The Arts & Crafts approach, according to Wilson, is using whatever is at hand to express yourself. For Wilson this applies applies as much to repertoire as to instrumentation. The band covered everything from Thelonius Monk to Bossa Nova to Jackie Byard to eclectic originals like "Free Range Chicken." "Chicken" is, by the way, the first time I've heard bubble wrap employed in a jazz setting, but then I don't get out much. The everything-AND-the-kitchen-sink approach covers over a multitude of distractions: when the credit card terminal at the bar went off during "Chicken" it sounded like it was right on cue.
Wilson employed both matched and trad grips, used both ends of his drumsticks, the window sill and what looked like a shoelace full of metal bits on the cymbal. Stafford used a series of mutes including a red plumber's helper to broaden the palette of his trumpet. You might expect a horn player to be the odd man out in this kind of setting, but the arrangements and Stafford's rhythmic attack kept him very much in the mix.
For me the standout of the evening was keyboard player Gary Versace. He traded between the piano the Hammond B3 throughout the night, counting the steps at Wilson's request ("...9, 10, 11 and done!"). Versace is the newest member of the group, taking over for founding pianist/organist Larry Goldings. His work at the organ in particular added an almost mystical sheen to the often antic proceedings.
Wilson has stated often that improvisational jazz is about finding the moment. An apt illustration of this came in the third set. Versace had moved from the piano to the organ as Stafford introduced the original tune "Lester," a tribute to Lester Bowie. He sat staring at his charts (he is the new guy after all) then he whispered to Wilson, "I think accordion!" Wilson half nodded and half shrugged. Versace moved over to get his squeezebox and away he went. A moment later Wilson was grinning like a loon. It was definitely the right call.
The Arts & Crafts Myspace page
We See (Monk)
The Scenic Route*
The Bat (Pat Metheny)
Rejoicing (Ornette Coleman)
Love Walked In
Cuban Carnival Song
Free Range Chicken*
We'll Be Together Again (Frankie Lane)
Confirmation (Charlie Parker)
Lester (for Lester Bowie)*
Aluminum Baby (Jakie Byard)
In Touch With Dewey*