Fans of modern pop and rock music may tend to see the drummer as secondary to the rest of the band, but in the world of jazz, there are many exceptions to this “rule.” Case in point: Matt Wilson. A world-renowned musician, Wilson has played with many of the great jazz artists of the day (and a few from yesteryear).
At 5:00 PM, one of his many bands, aptly named Matt Wilson and the Christmas Tree-O, played a free holiday show right next to Madison Square Park. Consisting of Wilson (drums), Jeff Lederer (tenor sax) and Paul Sikivie (electric bass), the Trio warmed attendees’ hearts with jazz iterations of famous Christmas carols, and even one Chanukah song for an encore. Meanwhile, local restaurant Blue Smoke heated up the night with their famous hot apple cider. Thanks to Flatiron BID for organizing the concert.
The set was short, but energetic, running the gamut from hard bop to free jazz, with a smattering of astounding drum solos thrown in for good measure (you can check out our video of the concert here). Before he sat down at his drum kit, Wilson was kind enough to answer several questions for Flatiron Hot! readers. Read on and learn about Wilson’s inspiration and his fondness for what Sinatra famously immortalized as “the most wonderful time of the year.”
Flatiron Hot: How did you first get into jazz?
MW: I heard it as a child and something struck me, the rhythm and the freedom of it, especially the rhythm.
Flatiron Hot: What’s your history with this band?
MW: We had a record come out in 2010 called Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O and we’ve been playing every Christmas since. Jeff and I have been playing together for a long time, about two decades. After seeing a concert, someone wanted me to do something, so I put it together. It felt great, so we started talking about making a record for the following season, and it ended up happening.
Flatiron Hot: What do you guys play other than Christmas music?
MW: We’re all-around jazz musicians. We play all different kinds of jazz. Anything you can think of.
Flatiron Hot: What clubs do you frequent?
MW: Pretty much all of them. We travel around the world. This year alone I’ve had my own bands play in town a lot, so all the major clubs: Jazz at Lincoln Center, The Village Vanguard, and the past two nights at the Jazz Standard.
How did you end up here tonight?
MW: I’m a supporter of the community. The Jazz Standard has treated me well as a musician over the years in various groups that I played with and also treated my family well, so I appreciate them very much and this is my way of giving back. It’s also a good warm-up before our show at the Jazz Standard later.
Flatiron Hot: Can you talk a bit about your recording history?
MW: I’ve been on over 300 records and I have 11 releases on my own.
Flatiron Hot: How would you describe your style?
MW: Fun. Accessible. Meaning everything. We like to welcome people into it.
How do you integrate different styles of jazz into one accessible whole?
Because we’re honest, that’s why. If you’re honest, you can integrate anything you want. If you’re trying to be fake to win somebody over, it isn’t going to work. So honesty and clarity is the best policy. And smiling!
Flatiron Hot: Are you always the band leader?
MW: No. I enjoy sideband work as well as leading. I enjoy both. I like being a band leader, it’s fun. I get a lot of satisfaction out of it, out of gathering folks that I think are interesting musicians and just letting them play.
Flatiron Hot: Who have you collaborated with?
MW: I’ve been lucky enough to play with a ton of great jazz musicians. Last night and tonight we have Bill Frisell as our guest, Joe Lovano played guitar with us, Kurt Elling sang with us last night, I played with Herbie Hancock and Joshua Redmond for a bunch of years. The list goes on and on.
Flatiron Hot: Who’s your target audience tonight?
MW: Just people walking by. People on the street who are drawn in by the music.
Flatiron Hot: You’re known for playing music that appeals to kids.
MW: We do have a self-titled family jazz record out that I did for Jazz at Lincoln Center, so I do a lot of outreach stuff as far as educational work goes.
Flatiron Hot: So you teach jazz in addition to playing it?
MW: Oh yeah, I do a lot of workshops. I’m a teaching artist.
Flatiron Hot: Where are some places you’ve taught?
All around the world. I teach part time as Sarah Lawrence College. I did a jazz workshop at Skidmore in the summer of 2011.
Flatiron Hot: What appeals to you about Christmas music?
MW: It’s not the songs; it’s the people that play them. So if you play songs with great musicians with imagination, anything can happen. It’s also just great material. It’s great songs of hope and joy.
Flatiron Hot: What are your favorite Christmas carols?
MW: “Hark! The Heralds Angels Sing,” “Bleak Midwinter,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Oh Come Emmanuel.”
Flatiron Hot: How about some Chanukah songs?
MW: Yeah, we got one. “Eight Candles.”
Follow this link for live footage of Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O, courtesy of Flatiron Hot’s Kazem Moradi.