Steve Wilson: Notes to a Young Player

In a quiet room in a quiet hall, facing a framed print of a ’57 Blue Note record, Steve Wilson folds his hands into his chin, and stares across the linoleum. He raises his brow in a deliberate balance of concentration and receptivity. Thoughts before words.

On the gig he exacts the same balance.

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He revels in the spaces between his solos, locking in with each moment’s conception of time, before he ever lifts his horn. When he’s ready to play, he’s already part of the conversation. Every melodic phrase develops out of an inspired connection to the rhythm section, and he encourages his students to explore the mystery of that connection in their own playing.

“That’s something I talk about all the time,” he says. “A part of that comes from me being a frustrated drummer. I originally wanted to be a drummer. As a kid, drums were– well it was all about the drums.”

“And then when I was around ten, my dad took me to a jazz festival and that’s where I saw Cannonball Adderley live, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Eddie Harris all in the same weekend. And, it was like- ‘okay, that’s it– saxophone. I’m gonna play saxophone.’ But, I still had drums as a first love. A lot of what I’ve learned about this music has come through drummers, particularly Billy Drummond, who has been on the scene for many years. We’re from the same area; I used to go and jam at his house when we were teenagers and he taught me a lot about the music and about drums. And a guy he grew up with was Roy Wooten of the Wooten brothers of Bela Fleck, and they always were experimenting with stuff. So, I learned a lot about the music through them, and through other drummers I worked with.”

Wilson’s fondness for drums reflects his devotion to the core component of his playing.
“We’re all drummers first in this music because it’s really about the rhythm.”

“Of course it’s about the blues and swing, but it’s really about the rhythm. So, for me, connecting with drums and a connection with the rhythm section is of utmost importance- it’s the top priority for me. And the thing I [tell my students], especially the saxophone players and frontline players, is be in the rhythm section when you play. Don’t think of yourself as ‘the soloist,’ and the rhythm section is over in the other corner. No–you have to interact.

“When you listen to all the great recordings- John Coltrane, Charlie Parker- you could fill on down the line- they’re interacting with drums; they’re really a part of the band. Treat it like you would any other ensemble — the symphony orchestra — it’s all tied together; it’s prolific. So that’s my philosophy. And besides, that’s where all the fun is. (laughs) You know? That’s where it’s at– gotta dance, you know?”

Another component present in Wilson’s playing is lyricism. He reflects on the musicians who have helped bring him closer to the story. “I have had the good fortune to work with a lot of vocalists,” he says.

“As a matter of fact, I [recently] reconnected with Maria De Angelis. She had moved to Syracuse for a number of years, and we just reconnected. We used to do duo gigs, just voice and saxophone at the old Birdland. I love working with vocalists, because [you] get a sense of the lyric and the lyrical side of the music, which is something I always try to bring to whatever I’m doing. Whatever I’m playing, no matter what context, I’m always looking for a lyrical side. Even if [I] don’t know the lyric, [I try] to get a sense of lyricism, and a sense of storytelling, and the audience– audiences really connect with vocalists because they’re hearing a story. That’s something that I want to do when I’m playing.

“So for me, to work with different vocalists- it’s a lesson, and it’s also a way for me to connect with the music on a deeper level. It’s more than just playing the notes; it’s about, ‘What’s the storyline here? What are we trying to do?’ So I have to pay attention to that, and I have to approach it from that level.”

On comping for singers: “To learn how to accompany a singer — to comp — teaches you about space, about making every note count, about the importance of melody, about not being afraid of different keys, and about learning the essence of the tune. I love doing it. It gives me a lot of space. I don’t have to play all of the time, but it also makes me feel very much a part of the music and the ensemble in a [way] that’s not so much about soloing, [but] about making music and making every note count.”

In addition to learning from his contemporaries, Wilson draws inspiration for his playing from an extended lineage of musicians. An alto saxophone player, he admits he has labored to develop a sound that’s uniquely his. “[It has] been a work in progress for me over the years,” he says.

“I’ve had to accept who I was because, for many years, I struggled to find an alto saxophone sound, because it’s the hardest saxophone to master. Many people think it’s the easiest, but it’s the exact opposite. And [consider that] you have to work through everybody from Johnny Hodges– still my favorite to this day– Charlie Parker, Benny Carter — fill on down the line. So, try to not be intimidated by that, and find your own sound and your own voice, because when you’re on stage, when you’re playing, it’s you that comes out.”

On understanding himself as an artist: “It took me awhile to learn to accept me and to say, ‘okay, let’s cultivate that, let’s hone that, let’s make that better.’ [It] meant I had to face some things that I didn’t like about my playing. It may have been about sound or intonation. To this day it’s very hard for me to listen to some of the recordings that I’m on (laughs) because I have to face my own demons. But, it’s enlightening and educational and honest. So, it’s starts with that. You have to accept who you are, and learn to love that, and cultivate it. It’s like a life lesson. Accept who you are, and make it better. Make it the best you can. Bring everything you can to it. And it continues to grow; I still listen to a lot of players. I’m still inspired by a lot of different things beyond music: art, food, different cities, different countries, people- so all that plays into it as well.”

On crafting his own harmonic language: “I usually don’t try to superimpose progressions over progressions. I know that is a technique that works. Coltrane did it a lot. I don’t do that as much as I try to find melodic content. I work more from melody. Now within that, you may hear something that may sound imposed, like a chord progression, but I’m really not even thinking about, ‘Oh, well, over this ii V, let me put this certain chord progression.’ I really don’t think about it that way. I’m thinking more about finding different notes. It may be an extension of a certain chord, and I’ll take that and try to find a new melody, or a melody on that note, knowing that that note is still connected to the given harmony.

“Even when I’m, I guess if you want to say, ‘stretching the harmony’- and this goes back to working with vocalists)- it’s still about melody. Even when you’re playing these extensions, or whatever you want to call them, to me it’s about melody. So if you’re taking some of these notes, make good, melodic sense out of them. That way, they have a purpose. So it’s not just like, ‘oh I’m going to throw something at the wall and see if it sticks.’ No. There’s got to be a reason for playing those notes. So now I’m at the point where I’m really hearing these things, and they come out as much as would, you know, playing a basic diatonic scale. I don’t even think about it, really, it’s what I hear. So I really try not to play it unless I’m hearing it.”

Cultivating his own evolving brand of musicianship has compelled Wilson to explore the music with players of equal artistic curiosity. The conception of Wilsonian’s Grain, the force behind his new record Live in New York: The Vanguard Sessions, developed as a result of that exploration. “That’s a band that I’m really excited about,” he says.

“And that goes back to [sometime] within my first year of moving to New York, I think, when I started playing with Bill Stewart. So we have a long association- I think he still lives in the same place in Brooklyn, after all these years- and I played on a couple of his projects. So, when I was thinking about putting this band together, I wanted a band that was even more expansive, creatively, than what I had been doing. [I wanted] a band that could weave in and out of different zones. And Orrin Evans is a player I’ve been working with off and on for the last, I think, ten years or more. And he has just evolved into, I think, one of the most important musicians of our time. He just has a lot of courage. He’s one of those people who has his own unique sound, his own unique direction. He brings something fresh to the table. He surprises you every time, yet, what he does is very rooted. So, I’m always looking to play with musicians who are not just expansive, but who are rooted. I need the roots. That’s what feeds us. And Ugonna Okegwo, we had a long association playing with Leon Parker. So I thought, those three people, together, give me different elements that I can plug into– and together, the band has really made a sound that has surpassed my expectations, so I’m very happy about this band.”

Another experiment that guided Wilson’s playing in unexpected directions was the assembling of Chick Corea’s Origin. “That was a complete surprise,” he recalls.

“I met [Chick] when I was working with Avishai Cohen; we recorded Avishai’s [album] and Chick produced it. Some odd months later, Chick called and said, ‘Hey look, I’m trying to experiment. I’m writing some new arrangements for a sextet, and we have this gig up in Schenectady New York, at this little club; would you be interested in coming up for a few days and playing?’ ‘Sure!’ He never said he was putting a new band together.

“So we did two or three nights with these arrangements and we all had a ball, and thought, ‘Well, it’s been great; thank you so much Chick, it’s been an honor.’ And at the end of it, before we left Schenectady, he said, ‘Look, I’ve already told my booking agent to start going out and booking dates for this band.’ We were like, ‘Really?? Oh wow-‘ I never expected that.

“The hardest thing about it was the other side of that coin. I was working with Dave Holland’s band at the time, and that meant I had to leave Dave, which I hated to do. It actually took me three weeks to call Dave because I really didn’t want to leave that band. But it was such a blast to actually get in a band like [Origin], and have it happen that way. It was very significant.”

As an artist, Wilson believes in fostering musical discovery through creative exploration. As an educator, he believes the freedom to explore follows a fundamental process of dedication and understanding. “I’d say learn your instrument,” he says. “Really learn your instrument, whatever that is, and learn your craft.”

“What I mean by that is learn all the different aspects of performing on your instrument. What does it take to play your instrument as best you can? Go to different sources. Don’t have a narrow point of view. Be open to different sources of information. So if you’re a jazz player, be open to classical music. Learn from classical musicians, and learn from a classical teacher and other musical forms and genres. Learn from different sources. Learn from other instrumentalists or vocalists. Learn from everything and really learn your craft.”

On practice technique: “Don’t practice the things that you know. Don’t practice the things that you can do well. It’s easy to get enamored with what you’ve learned and to go over and over it and say, ‘Man, that sounds great.’ Okay, but now, allow yourself to sound bad when you practice. If you sound good when you practice, then you’re not really practicing. Find out what you can’t do, every time you practice, and work on that. And keep taking it to the next level.”

On life lessons: “Learn how to be a professional. Learn what it takes to thrive in this business, and not just for the short term, to try get on the cover of somebody’s magazine. As I always tell my students, being in this business and this music is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. You want to be relevant when you’re sixty, seventy, eighty years old. So, learn your craft because that’s the thing that’s going to keep you relevant, and your skill up over a long period of time. [Don’t] just play the concept that’s trending, that you think will get you a lot of work or make you popular. No. Learn the history. Learn the lineage of what you’re doing. Learn who all the greatest practitioners were, and why. Who did they listen to? If you like Brad Mehldau, who did Brad Mehldau listen to? And then who did that guy listen to?

“I once heard Branford Marsalis in an interview; they asked him about Michael Jackson, and he said, ‘Well, Michael Jackson’s favorite singer was Jackie Wilson; Jackie Wilson’s favorite singer was Billie Holiday; Billie Holiday’s favorite singer was Louis Armstrong,’ so he traced it all the way back. So that’s my approach, and that’s what I would advise young musicians to do: learn the lineage.”

In a new moment of awareness, Wilson glances up at the framed print hanging on the wall. “I hope it keeps going,” he says. “I hope those who read [this] interview will study that past, present and future of our music because, as Jackie McLean once told me, ‘All of the new music is behind us,’ and he was right!”

Steve Wilson & Wilsonian Grain Live in New York: The Vanguard Sessions will be released March 24th, 2015 by Random Act Records, and will feature Orrin Evans, Ugonna Okegwo and Bill Stewart.

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