Matt Wilson, Beginning of a Memory

Matt Wilson is one of the most versatile and inventive jazz drummers on the scene, and Beginning of a Memory (on the Palmetto label) is, I think, his best album in his 20 years as a leader.

It's a memorial album to his wife, Felicia, a violinist, who died two years ago of leukemia. To deepen the tribute, Matt assembled a dozen bandmates from over the years to join in, calling the resulting ensemble (trumpeter Terell Stafford, cornetist Kirk Knuffke, and keyboardists Gary Versace and Larry Goldings, among others) Matt Wilson's Big Happy Family.

As a leader and composer, Wilson has always had a mirthful, even whimsical side, and there's plenty of that on display. But I've never heard, on any of his earlier albums, such passionate balladry or, on some tracks, such storms of free-form intensity. Wilson, who's 51, is a much-loved figure among jazz musicians of his generation; those involved in this session knew it was a special, even spiritual gathering, and they played accordingly, at the top of their game, not a single rote run or cliché.

The 17 tracks, all but three composed by Wilson, include up-tempo rousers, ambling rambles, merry swing shouts, avant howlers, and, in the title tune and "Flowers for Felicia (Orchids-Wildwood Flower)," a couple of knock-out gorgeous love songs.

In an email, Wilson told me that he, two bassists, and five horns recorded all 17 tracks in a single afternoon, reading off lead sheets but with no arrangements or rehearsal. Versace, Goldings, and bassist Yosuke Inoue, who each play on just one track, sent in their parts.

The session was engineered and mixed by Palmetto's proprietor, Matt Balitsaris, live-to-multitrack, on 24/96 Protools, and the sound is vivid, clear, precise and spacious. Like most of the label's sessions, it was laid down in a 200-year-old barn in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a 26'-by-26' square with a high ceiling, two of the walls stone, the other two wood. The two bassists flanked Wilson, and all three faced the five horn players. Balitsaris used RCA 44 ribbon microphones on the trumpets, Sony C-37As (a staple of Capitol Studios recordings in the '50s) on the reeds, a pair of Neumann U-87s over the trapset and another on the kickdrum, Coles ribbon mikes on the piano, and two mikes—an AKG-414 and a Shure CM-32—on each bass, all fed into Neve and Telefunken mike preamps. He told me that his aim is a natural, warm-leaning sound, and he certainly got that here.

All in all, this is a wonderful album.

Wilson and some of the Big Happy Family will be playing at the Jazz Standard, in New York City, on Tuesday, May 31.