An Interview with Anthony Wilson
A Word With
by Fred Jung
I consider Anthony Wilson to be a friend by virtue of the fact that he is a gentle soul. Anyone who has met the guitarist can vouch to that. But his composer hand is also very strong and he is certain to be a force. All that aside, I can relate to Anthony because I too know what it’s like to be my father’s son, as Anthony is the son of legendary composer/bandleader Gerald Wilson. We spoke from his home in So Cal to talk about his love of Kiss, how winning the Monk Competition changed the course of his life. Also his new release for MAMA Records, “Adult Themes” (which has the catchiest cover of any album this year), all unedited and in his own. – FJ.
JazzUSA: Let’s start from the beginning.
AW: Well, I think I got started by virtue of the fact that I loved music so much when I was a kid, meaning like three years old, four years old. Music was filling my head. I would go around singing songs and kind of like a sponge absorbed a lot of things and then when I was old enough to take an instrument, the first one that came along was guitar. That was when I was about seven years old. That was perfect for me because I wanted to be like, I loved Jimi Hendrix and I loved the Beatles and all these guys, and Kiss. Kiss was my favorite band. So that was the perfect instrument for me to play, so I just sort of took to it and started taking guitar lessons after school and joined the choir. I joined the boy’s choir when I was about eight or nine. Since that time, I’ve been doing it ever since.
JazzUSA: Kiss was your favorite band.
AW: Oh, yeah, without a doubt. I loved those guys, probably more for the theatrics than the music, but I just loved everything about them, Beatles and Bob Dylan and anything rock. I was too young to like jazz.
JazzUSA: So when did you begin to explore jazz?
AW: That would be like towards the end of junior high school, around fourteen or so. Eighth to ninth grade, I started to hear jazz and be able to appreciate it. When I was say seven, eight, nine, I would hear jazz or I’d go to my father’s concerts or hear jazz records around the house, so I at least I had ears that were open enough to not say well this music is terrible, which some kids do. They hear jazz or classical and to them it’s the worst thing in the world. I, at least, was able to appreciate it, thinking that it was good and these guys were good. About fourteen or fifteen, so then when I started to listen to it, I actually started to get something from it. I started to feel something and it was something that I wanted to join in. I liked the spirit of improvisation, that things were always different. I liked to hear a solo go from beginning to end. I thought that was really interesting. About that time, which is maybe the time that a lot of people start to get interested in it, now a days.
JazzUSA: What were you listening to?
AW: A lot of Miles Davis, what else, Dexter Gordon records, I liked the Dexter Gordon things on Blue Note, Eric Dolphy, none of the really old stuff and not much big band, mostly kind of bop. I liked Charlie Parker at that time and Coltrane. Coltrane has a way of really getting into you right away. I liked Coltrane at that time a lot.
JazzUSA: A lot of horn players.
AW: Yeah, I didn’t know really who to listen to on guitar as I was first starting to listen to jazz and it was mostly horn players that I heard, saxophone players mostly. Then my mom told me to listen to Wes Montgomery, so I did. It was about that time that I started to listen to some Wes Montgomery and that was a big eye opener. I didn’t even know you could do that on the guitar. I heard some Larry Coryell, I think I went to hear him live when I was first getting into jazz. He was all I knew about jazz guitar. I didn’t really know about people like Barney Kessel. I knew about Joe Pass but I hadn’t listened to him very much. So that stuff started to filter in as I got more into it to find out who the people were.
JazzUSA: What was so appealing about Wes Montgomery’s playing?
AW: It was just the fluidity. The way that ideas just rolled, one after the other, in a very logical and easy going fashion. It was nothing forced and it’s always swinging. It was a good feeling. It was a nice rhythmic feel and just that easy going effortless thing that he has that there have been hardly any guitar players who have had that certain thing, that effortlessness that he’s got. I don’t hear anybody with that particular thing. It’s just special to him.
JazzUSA: Let’s touch on the impact that winning the Thelonious Monk competition has had on your career (Wilson won the best composition category with his “Karaoke”)?
AW: Before that competition, I had kind of been concentrating on other forms of music. I was playing in a pretty rock band, pretty hard rock band. I wasn’t doing much jazz, just a little bit. My mother in her inevitable way of always looking for opportunities and things for me, saw that that year for the Monk competition, they were having a guitar competition and the composition part of it. She told me about it. She cut out the article. And I kept this thing for months and months, for like eight months. There was a little article thing for when the deadline is and I kept it posted in the bulletin board and did nothing about it. And then about a month before, I thought about doing the guitar part of the thing, but I didn’t like the guidelines. The guidelines were these really strict guidelines about what tunes you had to play and how many choruses and what tempo. It didn’t interest me that much. I also was maybe a little scared. Composition, I knew I had something. I can write good tunes, so I just said, “OK, I’ve got about a month here. I better write something and record it.” So I wrote that piece. I spent every day on it for a couple of weeks, but not that much time you know. I wrote it, sent it in and the great thing about winning the thing was it sort of suddenly hit home for me that I had kind of forgotten about jazz and I wasn’t really doing it that much. Why not? It got me thinking, why am I not doing this? This is something that I have a real talent for and I do it and it’s natural for me and why not do something that’s natural to me. In that sense, it kind of was a wake up. Oh, you forgot about this thing. It got me thinking about what kinds of things would I like to do, maybe start a band. Now, I’ve got some money to live on for a while so maybe start a band and start writing some charts and see what I can do on my own. For that, I probably wouldn’t, what I would be doing now would be a lot different even if that thing hadn’t come along to kind of wake me up and say, “Hey, there’s something to pay attention to.”
JazzUSA: You were in a rock band?
AW: (Laughing) Yeah. Oh, yeah, I was into it, Fred. For several years, I kind of was in like a the lost weekend phase. It’s great to be able to play music that you don’t have to, you don’t really have to know much to be able to play. It’s basic. It’s just loud. And it was fun, but I’m glad that I’m doing what I’m doing now, rather than that. I think there’s a lot more longevity that you can have playing jazz.
JazzUSA: Let’s talk about your three albums on MAMA Records, your self-titled debut, “Goat Hill Junket,” and lastly your latest installment, “Adult Themes.”
AW: They’re all the same format of band, which is kind of the instrumentation that I settled on during this phase, when I was trying to think what kind of band I would want to have. I thought it would be nice to have a band with a horn section and not exactly a big band, but just have some horns and have that ability to kind of have a nice, full, rich sound, but also have a lot of room for improvisation. I kind of settled on that format and we did all three records with this instrumentation. The first record was my attempt really. I just wrote a lot of tunes for that over a period of about a year. Before I even had a chance to record, I was writing stuff for the band and I would have rehearsals. So it was my kind of getting my feet wet and finding out what kind of things were possible for this instrumentation. How would my guitar fit into something like this? I think in the beginning, I kind of envisioned it as like more of a blues based kind of a band than a real serious jazz composition vehicle, which is what it turned into after I did the first record, I started to see that there were so many possibilities. I got all these players. They double on different instruments. I can have flute. I can have bass clarinet. I can have clarinet, soprano saxophone, flugelhorn, different combinations of things and so after my first record, I began to work more on my compositions, see what other things I could find for the next record, some other novel approaches to writing and did it in New York. So the first record was with my band, here in Los Angeles and then through going to New York several times and putting a band together, I met all these guys and I just didn’t want to let the opportunity pass to be able to record with them. That was a great experience, playing in New York and recording with these guys like Joe Temperley and Jerry Dodgion and Mike Ledonne, Jeff Ballard on drums. That was just another step in trying to explore this instrumentation. I’d say those first records are really just exploratory. Let me just see what’s possible here. So from bebop type of things to real bluesy things, more exploring the feel of different tunes and what’s possible with the instrumentation. And then when I did this album that’s just coming out, “Adult Themes,” I decided that it would be much more about, it would be less about exploring things purely musically and more with trying to delve into what personal feelings I could express through the music. It seems to be more of a dark sounding album. There’s a lot more spooky emotions that I got into. I think I’m exploring more emotional terrain rather than instrumentation and type of feels this band is good at and where my guitar fits in. I’m just sort of, I’m now trying to go inside and see what I can really pull out of myself.
JazzUSA: Do you feel that you have progressed significantly during that period?
AW: I’m definitely growing all the time. I tend to be hard on myself so I always think that I should be growing more and I should be better as a leader. In a way, I always feel that I have not grown enough, but I do know this, that I’ve grown a lot as a person in the last year and I think that that’s effected the music in a way that, even constant practicing can’t do. I’m a little bit more, I’m starting to be more comfortable in my skin as a person and see who I am and not be afraid to show that aspect. That also has a big effect on the music. I think it rubs off.
JazzUSA: I like the cover of “Adult Themes.”
AW: (Laughing) Most guys like it. We wanted to have a lady on the cover. We wanted to evoke something. We didn’t want it to be like a lady who looks all breezy and fun. We wanted it to be almost an evening type of a scene, kind of like some of my friends from college. God, this is so evocative of days that we spent every night in clubs, going out trying to pick up girls. It’s just that kind of almost seedy, but not exactly because she’s pretty. She maybe looks a little tired or something. I thought it would be a good play on the whole title of “Adult Themes.” People probably expect it to have something pornographic about it. So I thought it was nice to have a picture of a scantily clad woman. It was my idea and the guy from the MAMA Foundation and we said let’s do this. It’s an eye catcher.
JazzUSA: I will give you that. She looks like she is on ruffies.
AW: Yeah, yeah. She’s got that heavy eye make-up on and her thick heavy lids. It’s kind of a play because when I called it that, I kind of meant to evoke some other things, but the first thing that people usually think of when you say “adult themes” is sex and sexuality, so even though none of the tunes or their titles are really exactly evocative of that, your mind goes there anyway so why not let it be a part of the whole thing.
JazzUSA: Bennie Wallace is absent from this one.
AW: I miss Bennie anyway because we just don’t have enough chances to play together since he moved back East. It was nice to concentrate on the voices that I have in the band and not distract myself by writing any special features for some other person as an auxiliary to the band. We’ve been working now for like three years, so I’ve got a real good sense of who these people are in the band, Pete Chistlieb and Jack Nimitz and I just tried to really work, it’s a nice feeling to say, “God, I’ve got a full pallet here. I don’t have to add anything to it. Let me try to bring out as many things as possible in this self-contained unit.” In a way it was nice to not be bringing in a strong outside personality like that.
JazzUSA: The majority of the compositions on “Adult Themes” were penned by you, as were most of the tracks on your previous two releases, how have you progressed as a composer?
AW: I definitely see that there is a big development. I’m definitely trying to explore things and I’m less and less afraid to be confined by some kind of idea of what jazz is supposed to sound like or what straight ahead jazz is supposed to sound like. Every record that I’ve done, I can hear myself trying some different things, trying to open up the improvisational areas of the pieces that I write so that it starts to become really integrated with the rhythm sections and they’re seamless things that go on and I can hear that that’s getting much stronger, whereas when I was starting more long form tunes and I really considered them as tunes. Now I consider the whole thing as a composition, the orchestration, how the choruses are voiced, and where the improvisation comes in, where it goes out, who is soloing when, what the instrumentation is on a piece, all of that is part of the composition. I think, before I didn’t realize how essential that stuff was. I think I thought it or I knew it intellectually, but now I’m putting it a little bit more into practice. So that’s a big development.
JazzUSA: Your relationship with MAMA Foundation.
AW: Oh, it’s been great. Who knows how long I will be with MAMA? I may not be there forever, but I will tell you this, Fred, from the stories that I have heard from other people and what they have to go through to be on other labels, to be on major labels, there can be a lot of headaches involved and there can be a lot of people that are trying to tell you what kind of project would suit you at this particular time, usually that’s cause of some kind of marketing concern that they have, so they tell people to do tribute albums or do a Jobim record or do an album of such and such or do an album of this. Verve is a classic example of this. It’s all about theme records, or it was. I think it’s changing a little bit because of the change over, and choice of producer and sometimes artists from the same label get lumped together even though they wouldn’t necessarily be the right people to be playing together because it’s a label thing. MAMA Foundation has really said to me, “Look, OK, each record, make it something that you want to make.” I’ve never even walked into the studio on any of these records having had lengthy, lengthy, lengthy conversations about what songs are going to be on them and how long they’re going to be. I just do my work at home and when it’s time to be ready to do the thing, they’ve been good enough to trust that I have some kind of vision that’s important to me, that they want to support. So that’s very rare actually. I’d say it’s a good relationship and I’m lucky to have it.
JazzUSA: Are you still playing the regular trio gig at that club in Hollywood?
AW: That ended, unfortunately because that place Lucky 7 changed their format. They’re still owned by the same guys, but the guys who owned the place thought that jazz wasn’t doing well there, which is some kind of weird, unexplainable thing, some unexplainable fixation that these guys had that jazz wasn’t working in their club and so they changed it to a jukebox and DJ and just a straight bar. They stopped serving food there. But we do have our trio and we went up north to Yoshi’s in San Francisco this summer and we went down to San Diego and probably over the next year, that trio is going to be playing around the country a little bit.
JazzUSA: Let’s talk about the trio.
AW: Both the other two points in the triangle are on this record that I just did. It’s a Hammond B-3 organ, guitar, and drums trio and Joe Bagg plays the organ and Mark Ferber plays the drums. Mark is working with everybody right now around here. He’s just a great drummer. We started that band in order to play at Lucky 7 every week. That was back in February, I think. We played there for four months. It was just so great because for me, I had been concentrating so much on writing and writing and writing that this was one place I could go and not have to care about that. You could do a gig without having anything written, just play. So playing with Mark and Joe has put me back in touch with my instrument, which is great. Sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s bad because I see how many things that I have to accomplish on the instrument that I am nowhere near. We’ve got a good relationship, very compact. It’s all about improvising and communication with none of the trappings of that large band, where there are specific arrangements and things go down in a certain way to the written sound and the kind of tunes that we do because I do all of the arrangements. It’s a little more democratic. It’s much more spontaneous in certain ways and I really like that.
JazzUSA: Are you planning on recording the band?
AW: Yeah, I hope so. I hope it’s the next thing I do. That will be just a breathe of fresh air to walk into the studio with just two other people. It will be a breeze. One thing I’ve learned is that to be the leader of nine or ten guys at one time, it can be really intense. It can be pretty intense.
JazzUSA: Tour plans for the new album?
AW: We’ll be playing the USC (University of Southern California) in April. So some various things, in combination with the trio, which also plays music from this album, most of the gigs that I do, people will be able to hear music from my albums.
JazzUSA: When you play at my alma mater, will it be with your large ensemble or trio?
AW: That’s with the big band.
JazzUSA: And the future?
AW: Always writing. I can’t say for sure, but I think that we’re going to have a special gust on that USC gig. I’ll probably write some special things for that. I can’t really say who yet. I’m just going to keep trying to go deeper into this realm that I am in right now of trying to write something that’s personal and develop my own sound, so that when you turn on one of my records, you get the sense that you are finding out about me as a person. I get a little frustrated sometimes when I hear a lot of the new that comes out by younger musicians, not all of them of course, but some of them, you get a sense that no matter how many records you hear by this guy or these guys, that you will never find out anything more about them. It’s frustrating to me because they don’t have their own, it’s not you turn on that record and you say, “That’s that guy and I have a sense of him from his music.” Like my big example would be Wynton Marsalis, who I like and dislike for different reasons. Here’s a guy who has seven album this year out or something and I have heard many sections of all of them and I’ve been hearing him for years and I still don’t feel that he has decided to take the reigns and say, “This is what I am and this is who I am as a person and I feel strong enough to show that to you.” I don’t know anything about him except that he cares about kids, but who is this person? When you listen to Duke Ellington, you really get a sense of a real complex character and a person with different kinds of concerns. The title of his tunes talks about his concerns and the way he writes for the members of his bands talks about his concerns. It’s a very personal thing you get from him or Gil Evans or whoever. I just think that’s missing a little bit in today’s world so that’s something that I want to do and that’s give you a sense of who I am.
JazzUSA: Who do you think are the individual voices?
AW: The whole world of improvised music, jazz is kind of divided. You’ve got the major labels in general that kind of basically promote and record certain kinds of artists, some of whom I think are doing incredible things, like Brad Mehldau does incredible things no matter what the nature of each album that he does. It’s something special. It’s something unique. And it is. He’s one of those guys that does something personal with his playing and I respond to that. Then there’s people like Dave Douglas. He also does it. This is a guy who just loves to explore things, different sounds, different kinds of instrumentations, and he’s kind of fearless in that way. I think he’s great. I love Mark Turner. He’s one of the tenor players that I really like. I think that guy is just a monster. Peter Bernstein is my favorite guitarist around now to listen to of the younger guys. It’s just a great pleasure to hear how his solos evolve and how he gets better every time you hear him on a record. I like Larry Goldings. I love that whole trio, the Larry Goldings Trio. Then there’s people like William Parker, the bass player who plays with Matthew Shipp. That’s a guy who is doing something totally from another angle. Joey Baron or Ellery Eskelin, some of these guys who are on the more downtown New York scene. They do great things. There’s a lot of creative people out there. They may not always be the people that you are hearing about in terms of like major, major label hype.
Be sure to visit the Anthony Wilson home page at MAMA records