Jazz saxophonist Steve Wilson performs tonight
Published: Friday, January 25, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 24, 2013 at 7:58 p.m.
A year ago, after years of playing and recording with the likes of Lionel Hampton, Chick Corea, George Duke and Dianne Reeves on more than 100 records, jazz saxophonist Steve Wilson headlined a six-night stand at a New York club to celebrate his 50th birthday.
Steve Wilson & Wilsonian's Grain
What: New York jazz saxophonist performs with quartet
When: 7:30 p.m. today
Where: University Auditorium, 333 Newell Drive
The auspiciousness of that occasion — in which he appeared with such guest performers as bassist Christian McBride, pianist Mulgrew Miller and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts in a different band every night — had The Wall Street Journal describe Wilson as “essential to [New York City's] jazz landscape.”
Since that week-long run at New York's Jazz Standard, Wilson has presented his “Bird with Strings” project at two major jazz festivals, and premiered a three-suite work written for him by New York conductor/arranger David O'Rourke called “Journey to Wilsonia,” which had the alto saxophonist playing with an 18-piece orchestra of classical musicians.
Tonight, Wilson brings his quartet of seasoned players, Wilsonian's Grain, to University Auditorium for a performance at 7:30 p.m. While the saxophonist also leads a drummerless trio that recently played five nights at New York's Village Vanguard, tonight's performance with his quartet of different musicians will have him reveling in a format that allows him and the others plenty of room to expand creatively.
“The Wilsonian's Grain band is probably my most adventurous, or some people might want to say ‘cutting edge,' though I don't necessarily think of it that way, but more expansive creatively,” Wilson says in a phone call from New York.
The quartet — which also features pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Bill Stewart — excels in spontaneity and remains flexible in both material and approach, relying heavily on originals and on keeping them fresh.
“This group is very spontaneous in terms of what we do with our tunes; we treat a lot of our tunes like sketches, and so we don't necessarily play the same exact way every time we play,” he says.
“So it's very flexible in that way. We just totally listen to each other, and feel like we're just free to try anything.”
Along with originals by Wilson and the others, the group also draws on arrangements of a couple of Thelonius Monk tunes and a rendition of “Perdido,” which was popularized by Duke Ellington and recorded by acts as diverse as Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan, Dave Brubeck and Quincy Jones.
“But, because everyone [in Wilsonian's Grain] is such a great composer ... I like for the guys to bring in material as well as my own material, because we seem to be able to tap into different zones, and it leaves us a lot of freedom to explore the music.”
A native of Hampton, Va., Wilson played in a variety of bands before studying at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he became steeped in the early traditions of Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie, and especially influenced by the sound of Ellington's great alto saxophonist, Johnny Hodges.
“Of course, I listened to Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley ... and those guys are my idols,” Wilson says. “But when I discovered Johnny Hodges and just the beauty of his sound and his voice, and his place in the legacy, I think that's what really made me focus in on that direction.”
Wilson moved to New York City in 1987 and built a resumé in the nation's most important jazz world that allowed him to become one of the Big Apple's most-sought-after sidemen, or as The New York Times put it, “among the best New York jazz has to offer.”
When not working with one of his own groups, and recording and performing with others, Wilson teaches at The Juilliard School and other schools, and remains busy in a scene that embraces him not only as one of their own but now as one of their most accomplished and revered.
And Wilson reveres the New York scene right back.
“The music is always developing, it's always evolving and there are always great young musicians with new, different, dynamic ideas as well as the great masters who are still very active and creative, people like Kenny Barron, Buster Williams, Ron Carter,” he says about New York.
“It's still a great, dynamic place to be as an artist because there's always so much going on.”
Contact Entertainment Editor Bill Dean at 374-5039 or at email@example.com, and follow on Twitter @SceneBillDean.