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Steve Wilson and Wilsonian's Grain: Live In New York

steve wilson and wilsonian's grain

How does the complete musician grow? He steps outside the box. That’s exactly what alto saxophonist Steve Wilson does with his group “Wilsonian’s Grain” on their new live CD, recorded at New York’s Village Vanguard.

“I wanted a new kind of energy,” says Wilson about the project. “One that would take me out of my comfort zone and make me think differently.”

This is no small task - Wilson’s comfort zone is astonishingly large. A virtuoso and mainstay of New York’s jazz scene since the eighties, he plays a full range of woodwinds, with orchestras, leads six regular ensembles and has recorded hundreds of albums with everyone from Chick Corea to Maria Schneider.

He’s played at the Vanguard so many times, he can’t recall how many. Probably hundreds, too.

But he does remember the very first time, when as a fresh arrival in New York in he subbed in the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, led by Mel Lewis. He sat down between Joe Lovano and Ted Nash. He played his best, but was still nervous after the gig.

“Mel came over and told me I did a great job, and that he’d call me again – that was a real turning point for me,” Wilson recalls. “I never imagined I’d be playing at the Vanguard; it’s still the center of the jazz universe. It’s priceless, beyond measure. It’s very humbling to stand on all of those shoulders, and now to be a part of its history.”

For Wilsonian’s Grain, Steve recruited a set of like-minded, and equally skilled New York veterans – Orrin Evans on piano, Ugonna Ukegwo on bass, and Bill Stewart on drums. The group made its debut at the Kennedy Center in a JazzSet broadcast in 2008, and has been at the Vanguard three times, in 2010 and 2013, and again in May of last year, when this album was recorded.

“From that very first gig, there was a very special kind of chemistry,” he says. "I wanted us to feel free to take chances and to be as spontaneous as possible.”

The disc features three Wilson originals, one by Evans, and one each by Thelonious  Monk, Migiwa Miyajima and Joe Chambers.

Monk’s “Well You Needn’t” sets the tone for the session: Stewart’s muscular, unpredictable drumming throws surprise into the mix and keeps the ensemble on its toes.

Wilson responds with lightning-quick conception and execution. It’s a good thing this was recorded live – the audience’s excitement is so real, you can almost touch it.

“We don’t have a set format, where we go to swing at a given point, it’s just whatever we feel, the energy in the room at that moment,” says Wilson. “With this group, that’s the whole idea, so I’m trying to make a lot of the music like that.”

Wilson takes his heart-rending ballad “Chrysalis,” which he first recorded with pianist Mulgrew Miller’s Generations in 1998, and opens it up with an extended middle section, where Evans shines.

 “We play it less like a tune and more like a sketch or a tone poem,” says Wilson. “Every night we do it differently.”

Wisonian’s Grain is jazz at its finest – in conception, execution and spontaneity. The group is on a two-week tour of the Midwest March 20-31 with dates in Michigan, Ohio, Missouri and Kansas, then in Richmond, Virginia on April 7 and in Durham, North Carolina on April 18.

The band celebrates the CD’s release at New York’s Jazz Standard May 7 through 10, then will be at the Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival June 27.

  - Tim Wilkins, WBGO digital content producer

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