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Jazz Drummer Matt Wilson's 'Big Happy Family' Is Heartfelt And Harmonious


This is FRESH AIR. Jazz drummer and composer Matt Wilson has been leading bands, including two quartets, for 20 years. A lot of players have passed through those bands, and he rounded up over a dozen of them for a tribute project. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has more.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Matt Wilson's collective Big Happy Family, with three bass players bowing down below, from their album "Beginning Of A Memory." It's a literal reunion, a roundup of players who've passed through the drummer's several bands. That lets musicians play together who'd occupied the same chair at different times, like saxophonists Joel Frahm and Jeff Lederer, both on soprano here.


WHITEHEAD: Matt Wilson writes tuneful tunes that give improvisers something to work with and don't box them in. He's a big-hearted comedian who likes a happy workplace. With multiple players of the same instruments, sometimes in nine or 10-piece combinations, there are plenty of opportunities to build intricate clockworks and sound as rowdy as a halftime band.


WHITEHEAD: Like other fond reunions, this one was occasioned by a death in the family. Matt Wilson's new record is a tribute to his late wife, Felicia. They were together 32 years. As a memorial album, it offers up both halves of a traditional jazz homegoing, so you get heartfelt hymns alongside the laughter.


WHITEHEAD: That's "25 Years Of Rutabagas," with Gary Versace's accordion leading the choir. But it's the brass who really preach in this congregation. Kirk Knuffke on cornet and Terell Stafford on trumpet take the lead on "Lester" in memory of rubber-tone (ph) trumpeter Lester Bowie.


WHITEHEAD: The shifting ensembles, guest shots and affection for those now gone remind me a little of Charlie Haden's family reunion project "Rambling Boy." Like that album, Matt Wilson's "Beginning Of A Memory" includes the Carter Family's mountain standard "Wildwood Flower" but also a solo bass version of Lionel Richie's "Endless Love" and a new melody on the chords to "Out Of Nowhere" called "No Outerwear." Now that's a Matt Wilson joke. With this drummer and leader and composer, the humor and the corn also come from the heart.


DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point Of Departure and TONEAudio and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Beginning Of A Memory" by drummer Matt Wilson and band.

On the next FRESH AIR, Stephanie Danler tells us about her debut novel "Sweetbitter" about working in a high-end in New York City restaurant.


STEPHANIE DANLER: The joints in your wrist just ache all night and the heels of your feet - it's so physically punishing.

DAVIES: There's more - sex, drugs, infighting, gossip and the dreaded health inspector. Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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