There's always a risk when a drummer leads a jazz group. Will the resulting music simply be a mind-numbing display of virtuosity with instrumental accompaniment? Or will it produce a more balanced combination, in which drums serve as the heartbeat, inspiration and engine for a complete musical journey?
Drummer Matt Wilson's performance Wednesday at the Jazz Bakery with his group Arts & Crafts landed somewhere between those extremes, with occasional forays into the outer limits of each.
Fortunately, Wilson's capacity to find unusual textural tonalities from his standard jazz drum kit kept even his most extended solo passages entertaining. Using hands, fingers, sticks, brushes and mallets, he generated a seemingly endless variety of ticks, slaps, scrapes, shimmers and slams. Unfortunately, the galaxy of percussive sounds too often lacked the essential jazz rhythmic quality of swing.
Wilson's leadership skill, his capacity to create music that explored the full range of his artistic interests while remaining in touch with the core elements of jazz, was much more apparent in the numbers in which he interacted more cohesively with his first-rate musical associates -- trumpeter Terell Stafford, keyboardist Gary Versace and bassist-clarinetist Dennis Irwin. When that empathy combined with such excellent repertoire choices as Thelonious Monk's "We See" and Ornette Coleman's "Rejoicing," Wilson's reputation as one of the intriguing new jazz arrivals of the past decade began to make sense.
Other pieces -- almost all from his new CD, "The Scenic Route" -- were equally compelling. Among the best -- Wilson's own title track, Pat Metheny's "The Bat" (featuring gorgeous work from Stafford) and the atmospheric duet between Irwin's clarinet and Versace's accordion on "Anselmo."
The final number revealed yet another attractive Wilson quality -- his interest in bringing humor and spirituality to his music. After kicking off the gently rolling rhythms of "Feel the Sway," he invited the audience to stand and, in yogic fashion, allow their bodies to respond. It was a surprising end to a program that had initially seemed to promise a hazardous exposure to a drummer's desire to "let's see what I can hit next." Wilson, as it turned out, is much more than that.
Matt Wilson Arts & Crafts
Where: Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City
When: 8 and 9:30 p.m. through Sunday
Contact: (310) 271-9039