I am just thrilled that Resonant Motion gets to bring Steve Wilson in tomorrow to share his sublime playing, wonderful compositions, and affable, thoughtful manner with my community in Middletown, CT. The occasion has given me the impetus to dig into some of my favorite Wilsonian music through the years.
My first time hearing Steve was on the Spiral Staircase album by OTB (the Blue Note “super group” in which he replaced Kenny Garrett), but I don’t think it registered, because I was a senior in high school and mainly concerned with the presence of Ralph Bowen and Michael Philip Mossman, both of whom I was about to begin studying with in college, which my friend Amanda Monaco was hip enough to alert me to (she, as it turned out, went on to study with Steve a few years later).
My first time hearing Steve live and being fully aware of his presence was a revelation. It was 1993 and he was playing alongside my mentor Kenny Barron in the group of Buster Williams (with which he’d go on to play quite a bit through the years). His soulful, assertive work on alto and soprano saxophone was revelatory, and I began absorbing much of his work as a leader and as a sideman.
The biggest revelation, though, came when he played on 3 tracks of my Soul Force album. It was 2004 and I sucked it up and contacted his manager, Laura Hartmann – though Steve and I had become acquainted by that point, I was braced for “go ‘way kid, ya bother me.” I not only got a “yes,” but some enlighteningly professional work in the sense that everything about it went smoothly and put me at ease, from his preparedness to his warmth. But man, once the tape rolled, he KILLED it. Every take, every solo, every moment of section work. On the ride back from NY that day, Omer, the young assistant I had helping me in the studio that day, just kept saying “man, Steve Wilson.” That about summed it up.
I could go on and on, but I’d like to get to the music. Because he has been so active, I’ve had to leave out sessions by some important ongoing colleagues of his like Ralph Peterson, Bruce Barth, Christian McBride, Billy Drummond, Victor Lewis, David Berkman, and Darrell Grant, as well as more “isolated” (from the discographical sense) appearances on records by Dave Holland, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Roberta Piket, Roz Corral, and others. Now on to some of my favorites:
1 ) “A Joyful Noise (for JW)” from Generations
Two of the most important pianists in the Steve Wilson lineage are the great James Williams and Mulgrew Miller, both sadly no longer with us. Mulgrew’s soulful, modern playing was a wonderful complement for Steve, and theirs is the perfect team to pay tribute to James. The rhythm section of Ray Drummond and Ben Riley was actually the other 2/3 of James’ trio the last time I heard him play, a few months before his passing, and they swing hard on this appropriately soulful waltz. And yes, I’ve used the word soulful multiple times here. Soulful soulful soulful.
2 ) “Monk Medley Part 2 (Bright Mississippi, Four In One)” from Duologue by Steve Wilson and Lewis Nash
Do check out Steve’s duo with drummer Lewis Nash the next chance you get. Steve’s deep relationship with Thelonious Monk’s music is put to great use on this track, but the whole album is full of groove and sublime interaction.
3 ) “Go East Young Man” from The Sequel by Mulgrew Miller and Wingspan
This incarnation of Wingspan features a front line of Steve, trumpeter Duane Eubanks, and Steve’s frequent and fruitful collaborator Steve Nelson on vibes. I dare say this track is one of the most swinging things I’ve heard recorded in the last 15 years, making me miss Mulgrew all the more. Steve’s soprano work is a definite highlight.
4 ) “Perry Street” from Live In New York: the Vanguard Sessions
This hard-swinging and harmonically evocative tune comes from Steve’s most recent record as a leader, featuring his Wilsonian Grain quartet, with Orrin Evans on piano, Ugonna Okegwo on bass, and Bill Stewart on drums.
5 ) “Illusion” from the Traveler by Kenny Barron
We need to make sure Steve’s lyrical ballad playing is represented, and I can’t think of a better way than on this soprano feature with Kenny, one of the living masters of ballad playing.
6 ) “Four” from A Week at the Blue Note by Chick Corea flute
Steve’s fruitful tenure in Chick’s Origin sextet (with yet another important collaborator named Steve, one of my early mentors, trombonist Steve Davis) was fortunately well documented. There is some great original music by Chick, but I also have a particular fondness for the extended live romps from this multi-album set. Hearing Steve burn on this tune is a definite highlight.
7 ) “Tortola” from Soulful Song
This Wilson original is indeed a soulful song, all the more so due the sympathetic interplay with pianist Bruce Barth, bassist Ed Howard, and drummer Adam Cruz, Steve’s go-to quartet for years.
8 ) “The Hunted” from The Child Within by Billy Childs
Steve takes an utterly burning alto solo on this one, prodded along by Childs’ comping and the great rhythm section work of Dave Holland and Jeff “Tain” Watts, both of whom would later feature Steve on their own excellent recordings.
9 ) “Galapagos” from Written in the Rocks by Renee Rosnes
Two of Steve’s most frequent collaborators are heard on this gorgeous track from a session released earlier this year by pianist Renee Rosnes. Renee, Steve’s bandmate in OTB (and a frequent collaborator since), composed this tune that features Steve’s gorgeous flute playing as well as a solo turn by, once again, the great Steve Nelson on vibes.
10 ) “Passages” from Boogaloo Brasiliero by Freddie Bryant
Steve’s flute is heard once again. It seems an appropriate bookend to this list as well in that this harmonically rich, rhythmically multifaceted tune featured prominently when Freddie was the first guest artist in the Jazz Up Close series.
Honorable Mention: “Truth, Justice, and the Blues” from Truth, Justice, and the Blues by James Williams and the ICU
I put this one separately because a) it’s out of print, and b) the work of the James Williams Intensive Care Unit (particularly the live shows I saw, buoyed by the wonderfully complementary work of the steady core of Steve, Miles Griffith, John Lockwood, and Yoron Israel) is so special to me that I have trouble quantifying it. The group’s first album features wonderful saxophone work from both Steve and Bill Pierce, but this track is all Steve, with his alto soaring over the hard-swinging backdrop.