Matt Wilson, Atilla Zoller, and The Anthropology of Jazz

By Ricia Gordon

Ricia Gordon has studied jazz piano with Eugene Uman and percussion with Russell Horton, Julian Gershin and William Rodriguez. She has played in several Vermont Jazz Center student ensembles, including a four-year stint on the congas with the Latin Jazz Ensemble. She taught writing at Landmark College for nearly twenty years and has an MFA in poetry from Warren Willson College. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, and she has been a resident at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

At some point during the first set of Matt Wilson’s concert (He played with Fred Haas on tenor sax and Dave Clark on contrabass.), I noticed two young boys in the first row near the drummer, a place where drum students like to sit. They were wide awake and following Wilson’s every move. There’s a piece of the future of jazz, I thought, two kids coming up through the tradition, part of what Wilson calls the anthropology of jazz, stepping into its story. Wilson embodies that anthropology and jazz’s language with great skill and a great sense of humanity. He gives it to us with joy and passion. You can hear it in his stories and see it in his playing, in his face, in the way he hoots softly after an especially beautiful passage.

The concert honored VJC’s founder Atilla Zoller, and we heard lots of stories about him. While I never met Zoller, I got a better sense of who he was through Wilson’s stories and through the richly varied pieces the trio played for us. Of the eleven tunes, seven were Zoller’s. I was struck by Zoller’s range as a composer. The first set opened with his “Waltz for Joy,” which we learned was written for Joy Wallens-Penford, a friend of Zoller’s who was in the audience on Saturday. Apparently it was written after the two went ice skating. Ice skating and jazz. It’s a theme that would return later in the show. After Zoller’s “Homage to O.P.,” written for Oscar Pettiford, the trio began a Latin tune, the danceable “Samba Caribia.” Wilson provided the basic samba rhythm on the floor tom, the characteristic open/closed pattern played with a soft mallet on one and three. After the samba, Wilson invited Eugene to the stage for the beautiful ballad, “When It’s Time.” Haas gave Eugene the solo, and he played from his heart.

The first set ended dramatically with two pieces, Wilson’s “Stay Giving,” (named after a Zoller phrase) moving into Zoller’s “Hungarian Jazz Rhapsody.” “Stay Giving,” was written on a Hungarian scale, a harmonic minor scale with a raised fourth, according to Wilson. The tonalities ranged darkly throughout the piece. When the trio shifted into the “Rhapsody,” the tempo picked up and you could hear echoes of Hungarian folk tunes, see the dancing feet and whirling skirts. And was it the “irascible” spirit of Attila that caused the tom to lift off its stand and fall to the floor near the climactic end of the piece? Wilson was wide-eyed but kept things moving on what was left of his drum set. Amazing.

The second set gave more space to members of the trio’s own tunes, and allowed the three to stretch out musically. The set opened with Haas’ beautiful and complex “Fred’s Ahead.” Apparently whenever Haas wrote a tune and showed it to Zoller, Zoller would rework it, telling Haas, “This version’s much better.” “And it usually was,” said Haas. The set also included the second Latin tune, “A Thousand Dreams,” and Wilson’s “Bubbles,” in which Wilson stood at his drumset and recited the Carl Sandburg poem by the same name. “Two bubbles found they had rainbows on their curves. They flickered out saying: ‘It was worth being a bubble, just to have held that rainbow thirty seconds.’ ” For Wilson, the poem embodies the spirit of jazz. The way it lives in the moment and then passes. And indeed, we saw that on Saturday, three musicians inventing on the spot, playing music that will never be played just that way again. I thought of what the painter Jules Olitski is reported to have said when he was covering his canvases with spray-painted art. “If I could just get a spray of color in the air, and somehow it could stay there- that would be it,” he said. Art in the moment, beauty formed then passing.

Eugene returned to the piano for Zoller’s “Meant To Be,” a gorgeous waltz, which Eugene and Zoller played together at Zoller’s last VJC concert. Again, I was aware of the reach of Zoller’s depth as a composer. He seemed to have been blessed with a mind that could create a musical world large enough to contain both the sweetness of “Meant To Be” and the crazy unpredictability of the “Hungarian Jazz Rhapsody.” The concert ended with Dave Clark’s, “Crazy Sheet,” a composition alluding to Zoller’s reported irritation with some poor sax student practicing the same riff too many times at a VJC jazz camp. I went home with that tune lodged in my brain. In addition to being an great bassist with a range of big, full sound, Clark is a clever composer. “Crazy Sheet” spoke playfully to us about Zoller, and it provided a fitting end to a great show.

I’m left with the image of jazz and ice-skating. Wilson gave us the scenario of the three of them playing jazz somewhere north of White River Junction, Haas with a plastic sax, their music causing skaters to move in vertiginous, asymmetrical patterns across the ice. Matt Wilson’s trio brought Zoller and his music to life on Saturday night and reminded me how jazz creates a community, how uniquely it communicates something that feels like love. Matt Wilson and his trio are loving, talented jazz messengers.