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Learning from the Masters

Valley jazz guitarist draws inspiration from traditional artists.


So many jazz artists these days seem obsessed with expressing the "new," employing an idea, phrase or theme that, in theory at least, has never been heard before.

Composer, arranger and guitarist Anthony Wilson has a smaller, and potentially more impactive, goal: to be himself and write and play music that appeals to him and his burgeoning audience. And if that means drawing inspiration in part from such masters of earlier eras as Duke Ellington, Gil Evans, Wes Montgomery and T-Bone Walker, hey, that's fine.

"I am somewhat caught up with more traditional styles like blues and swinging music, which feel good," said Wilson, whose first-rate, eponymously-titled debut album was nominated for a Large Jazz Ensemble Grammy and whose equally strong new album, "Goat Hill Junket," has just been released.

"In that traditional part of jazz, there's a real love of simplicity, directness and clarity," he said. "It seems like more musicians are trying to find something new and complex to say, going after progress, but there's something to be said for progress coming from just deepening your personal search in the traditions that inform you--learning the blues, how to swing, how to play a melody that is clear. If things happen spontaneously from your root nature," he said, thumping his heart with his hand, "you can't go wrong."

However, to love tradition is not necessarily to live in it. Wilson's bachelor's degree from Bennington College in Vermont is in music composition, and he knows all about such ground-breaking 20th century classicists as Olivier Messiaen and Luciano Berio and such forward-thinking jazzmen as John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor. And although his current works don't obviously reveal the mark of such pathfinders, Wilson said modern ideas are indeed there.

"I have, say, come across a distinctive voicing which may not be conventional in a swinging context but which works," said the 30-year-old native of Hollywood who lives in Studio City. "I'm just exploring what I can do in music and trying to put it all together. There's so much music from the last 100 years to make sense of."

Wilson leads his nine-piece band tonight in a free concert at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. His new album, like its predecessor, sports a wondrous range of music.

"W-2 Blues," with a hint of warm R&B flavor, has some tasty Walker-influenced guitar work, while "Here's That Rainy Day" opens with a floating, mesmerizing section that only occasionally touches on the familiar melody. There are Ellington touches in the use of clarinet and muted trombone in the tango "Hell's Belles," and modernity in rhythm and theme is explored in the rapid "It Has Happened to Me."

Throughout, Wilson shows himself to be a delightfully expressive, mature soloist who loves the blues, who can swing, and who knows where the ear-pleasing notes reside.

Wilson, the son of acclaimed bandleader/composer Gerald Wilson, was attracted to rock as a youth, but then gravitated toward jazz as a teenager. "When I heard [saxophonist] Dexter Gordon and Miles Davis for the first time, that lit a fire under me," he said. "The kind of excitement from hearing a guy spontaneously make a solo sold me."

The guitarist joined his father's band at age 16 and credits him with much of his development. "He always told me to learn about harmony and, from being in his band and hearing and seeing the players, I learned what it was like to be a professional musician," he said.

At Bennington, two heralded jazz avant-gardists--Bill Dixon and Milford Graves--provided guidance and inspiration. After a brief period in New York in the early '90s, Wilson moved to Los Angeles and wrote "Karaoke," which won $10,000 first prize in the 1995 BMI/Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz composers' competition.

Lately, besides occasional appearances with his band--it also performs Aug. 11 at the Moonlight in Sherman Oaks--Wilson has played in a quartet with veteran saxophonist Bennie Wallace, who has also become his mentor.

"Bennie's a great example of following his own muse and having an approach that is completely personal," Wilson said. "He shows that if that's what you want to do, you can reap both musical and personal rewards."


Anthony Wilson's band plays tonight, 7:30, at the Skirball Taper Courtyard of the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Free; $5 charge for parking. (310) 440-4500.

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