Both a joyous act of communion and a solemn farewell, Beginning of a Memory is a celebration of life, community and family expressed with the virtuosic wit and embracing humor that has made Matt Wilson so beloved in the jazz community as a drummer, composer and human being. Returning to the studio as a leader for the first time since his wife Felicia lost her battle with leukemia in June 2014, Wilson convenes the closest members of his extended musical family, including all the members, past and present, of his longest-running ensembles: the Matt Wilson Quartet, Arts & Crafts, and Christmas Tree-O.
Due out May 27 from Palmetto Records, the result is a warm and loving commemoration, featuring new renditions of many of Felicia's favorite tunes from Wilson's past recordings interspersed with snippets of studio dialogue that capture the spirit of the session. The release also marks the 20th anniversary of Wilson's tenure on Palmetto and of his collaboration with producer/label founder Matt Balitsaris, making Wilson's behind-the-scenes collaborators as much a part of the Big Happy Family as his bandmates.
"I made this album to celebrate a community of people and how much their love and support through all of this has meant to me," Wilson says. "It also celebrates her relationship with all these folks, because Felicia had a really special relationship with each and every one of them."
Wilson's Big Happy Family is a raucous clan whose members span a considerable stylistic spectrum, spotlighting Wilson's sonically inclusive versatility. The horn section alone brings together saxophonists Jeff Lederer, Joel Frahm and Andrew D'Angelo with trumpeter Terell Stafford and cornetist Kirk Knuffke; they all gathered together in the studio with Wilson and bassists Martin Wind and Paul Sikivie.
Improbably, that recording session was done without written arrangements, adding to the raw, informal feeling of the album and showcasing the camaraderie among Wilson and the various members of the family. "Just letting the cats play is risky business," Wilson admits, "but I was really into that. It was nice to see what would emerge. I love the courageous trust that everyone had. It was a pretty vulnerable situation to be in, but the vulnerability opened up everybody's sound to put them in a different light. Each and every one of them are characters, but the moment and the surroundings welcomed them into other territories.
"This was a very special occasion," adds Martin Wind. "Matt creates a very special atmosphere because of his style of leading. He picks the guys who he trusts and loves and then he puts the music in front of us. He trusts our instincts and decision-making and he's exceptional in the sense that he embraces everything that you could possibly come up with. There's no such thing as a wrong musical decision when you play with Matt."
Chris Lightcap added his bass parts later, as did pianist, organist and accordion player Gary Versace. Long-distance contributions also came in from Larry Goldings, who contributes a loving and tender solo rendition of "How Ya Goin'" on prepared upright piano from L.A., while original MWQ bassist Yosuke Inoue chimes in all the way from Japan with an unexpectedly moving solo version of '80s schlock-pop masterpiece "Endless Love."
Most of the pieces on the album have been associated exclusively with one of Wilson's groups or another, making nearly every track simultaneously a revival and a discovery for the various members. The conjoining of bands also carries that feeling of familiarity and freshness into the ensemble itself. At the same time it felt like a homecoming with Balitsaris producing and engineering, Michael MacDonald mastering, and former label GM Pat Rustici cooking for the band.
The most deeply personal moment comes on "Flowers for Felicia," a heartwrenchingly intimate piece that combines the melodies of Wilson's "Orchids," written for his wife, and one of her favorite songs, the Carter Family classic "Wildwood Flower." She's also there in spirit on the title track, on which Knuffke plays the melody that Felicia originally performed on violin for the original recording on 2003's Humidity. But equally indebted to Felicia's memory is the album's most unruly moment, an impromptu romp through "Schoolboy Thug," originally recorded on 1998's Going Once, Going Twice and a song that she adored.
"She liked the music that was pretty nutty at times," Wilson says with a chuckle. "I know she would love that version of 'Thug.'"
"We all knew we were gathering that day for a special purpose," recalls Jeff Lederer. "It was a day of remembering, it was a day of celebration - of Felicia, of Matt, of the special bond between them which was music, and so much more. Each one of us in the room had our own unique relationship with Felicia and with Matt and knew that, even more than usual, there was a special purpose to the music we played that day."
That spirit infuses every note on Beginning of a Memory. Moments of uninhibited joy collide with passages of bittersweet sadness, but all of it combines with Matt Wilson's emotional openness, empathy and exuberance to conjure a mood of wistful optimism.
"I wanted this to be a landmark representing new beginnings and celebrating all the new memories that are starting," Wilson sums up. "No matter what goes on in life, we have to welcome new things all the time but also celebrate the gifts that we've been given - and all of these musicians are full of gifts."