An experienced pursuer of the unfamiliar, and a compassionate leader who’s unafraid to unleash, the eternally curious drummer carves a unique way along his journey of musical discovery—all the while bringing as many of us along as he can.

During an early set at Manhattan’s Birdland jazz club this past September, a sharp-dressed Matt Wilson took the stage behind jazz pianist Tamir Hendelman and bassist Marco Panascia. Sitting straight, tall, and attentive, the drummer began addressing the first tune’s melody on his ride cymbal with delicate flicks of his fingers, making the stick almost appear to bend as he kept familiar time. Sparse hi-hat chicks fluttered, avoiding 2 and 4 at Wilson’s whim. A feathered bass drum played a delicate cat-and-mouse game with a ghosted snare as the tune progressed. All was calm.

Then Wilson exploded. A snare crack and crash startled the Broadway dinner crowd and lit a blaze beneath Hendelman’s solo, setting a precedent for the rest of the night’s dynamic and emotional waves. Throughout the set, Wilson shifted between postured addresser and untethered instigator—comping on a hi-hat stand or tom rim, exploring an extended tamborim solo, and gracefully sweeping with brushes underneath Hendelman’s gorgeous ballads.

These contrasts define Wilson’s aesthetic, and might be a reason why he’s been such an in-demand drummer on the New York jazz scene since his arrival in 1992. Throughout his career, Wilson has played on hundreds of records—more than 400 by his count—with artists such as John Medeski, Denny Zeitlin, Gary Versace, Charlie Haden, Lee Konitz, and David Liebman. A brief survey of Wilson’s performance credits reveals appearances with Herbie Hancock, Dewey Redman, Andrew Hill, and Bobby Hutcherson, among many others. And Wilson maintains an extensive teaching agenda, which includes positions at New York’s New School, SUNY Purchase, and Sarah Lawrence College, and trips throughout the year to Stanford University in California.

Over the past twenty years, Wilson has racked up his fair share of recordings as a leader, including his latest album, Honey and Salt, which upon release this past August garnered plenty of critical praise. The project features eighteen compositions inspired by the poetry of the Pulitzer Prize–winning American writer Carl Sandburg. Guest artists such as Christian McBride, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, and Joe Lovano lend their voices to readings of the poems throughout the record’s four sections, and Wilson even duets with Sandburg’s recorded recitation of “Fog.” MD caught up with an exhilarated Wilson shortly after the record’s release.

As Ways Welcome Ways

MD: How’s the reception for Honey and Salt?

Matt: Overwhelming. I’m ecstatic about the response to the record, but maybe what’s more satisfying is that audiences really love the gigs. And the band has been so in the moment, flexible, and allegiant to the songs.

Somebody wrote that they thought the band was great because it was selfless but everybody got to be themselves at the same time. So you knew who they were, but yet collectively it went on a journey, which is one of my goals with any of these projects—to let people play, but really to surround yourself with people that also let you do just that. None of this happens unless you really know who those musicians are or have welcomed music with them like that.

So it’s been fun. And it’s risky, because as organized as I try to be, I want to have departure points as a bandleader where the music is organized enough that people know it’s a band. But I don’t want it to become a routine. How do you keep welcoming it each night with a new perspective?

One of my goals with whatever project I’m involved in is to have it immediately sound like a band. However you can lift it, welcome it, and provide whatever’s needed to allow the other musicians to think, Now we’re really a band, even if it’s the first time you’ve ever played.

MD: How do you provide that feeling?

Matt: I think part of that is knowing. I’m turning fifty-three, and I think I’ve learned now that when you realize that you have the best seat in the house and you hear the proceedings going on, you have more of a tendency to play what’s needed for the music. Not to say that it’s taken me that long to realize that. But it’s a thought that seems like it’s right before our eyes and ears but can get somewhat marred by all the things we’re dedicated to learning.

There’s a craft to what we do. There are tangibles and intangibles. There are tangibles like reading, knowing the spirit, or studying things that people have done to influence you or not influence you. There are the conscious and unconscious parts of being a musician. I think we want to have both. We want to be the people that can react in the moment. But at the same time, you want to have people around you that can retain. And if you rehearse, remember where things go, hopefully keep the time together, and follow the forms—all the nuts and bolts—then that’s part of it too. If you can have a marriage of the tangibles and intangibles, then I think it really helps foster a group aesthetic.

Whatever you offer the sound, you want to hope that it helps the sound of the song and everybody else’s sound. Is what you’re playing helping the piano, guitar, saxophone, or drums? And vice versa. When a band hears that, then we’re really sharing sound. We’re not just playing something and hoping that it sticks.

MD: How do you technically achieve that?

Matt: You want to have ways—there’s no single way of playing. Ways reduce limitations, but we want limitations too. We want to welcome limitations, because those define us. The way Miles Davis played with Charlie Parker was different from the way he played with Dizzy Gillespie, based on limitations. He couldn’t play the same way. So sometimes you have to realize: This is what I can do. And I think that’s a mature decision. Not to say that you’re not going to grow or improve on certain areas.

We’re always trying to improve as musicians. But I don’t think that should ever stop us from being a part of the group. Maybe sometimes more information or more knowledge may hold us back. Sometimes being naïve is great. I always tell people, “I like being an idiot.” I don’t really want to know. I want to know but not know—to me that’s a sign of creativity or imagination. You take in all these other elements, but you don’t really know the answer. And I think we’re always trying to tap into that. If we really knew what was going on, we probably wouldn’t make such an effort to be a part of it. We’re still mystified by why this can happen. We can give people the aspects to be ready, but we can’t really tell them what the essence of the art is.

My church’s minister recently talked about this great concept from a famous hand-knitting teacher and designer, the late Elizabeth Zimmermann. Zimmermann didn’t claim to invent anything. She called it “unventing.” She gathered her influences—she’d take from here and there, and then suddenly she’d have something going on. And I looked back on my life a little bit, and that’s what’s been possible. I’ve been fortunate in that regard to have people guide me at the right time, and I’ve been there to welcome it at the right time.

MD: Do you have specific ways or concepts that you teach every student, or does it vary?

Matt: All of the above. Music evolves, and now it’s slightly more vertical than it used to be. I think jazz drummers of a certain era—and I was maybe on the tail end because I got to see those folks play—but that music was a little more horizontal. It was moving forward movement-wise. There’s nothing wrong with that, but other generations have grown up listening to music that’s quantized, and there’s a marked difference between the lows and the highs or between the bass drum and the rest of the spectrum. That’s influenced swing, which I think is great. That’s why we have these marvelous younger players—younger players than me—that I really admire. Eric Harland, Marcus Gilmore, Mark Guiliana, Obed Calvaire, Kendrick Scott, Johnathan Blake…. I love that they have something different to do. I heard Gerald Clayton’s trio at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and it gave me a lot of hope that there’s this new format in a genre that’s been around for quite a while.

But again, I was very fortunate to have great teachers and guides that helped me learn how to teach. I studied with Ed Soph in the summer of 1984 on a National Endowment grant. He taught me to let the stick do the work as a way and to let that be a part of the melody of the ride cymbal. Plus I was at a point in my life where in that summer of ’84 I was almost twenty, and I had the time to really work on that stuff. So when I went back for lessons I had the stuff ready.

MD: How was your experience with Ed Soph?

Matt: I was staying in Boston, and I would drive down to Connecticut, where Ed was at that point. I may have had one lesson where it really wasn’t together, and I didn’t want to experience that again. [laughs] So at that point, I needed somebody to ask me, “Do you really want to do this?”

I think that’s good. I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by very supportive people. And when somebody came along that maybe conveyed some tough love to me, it’s because I needed it. Maybe I thought I had it figured out. Then somebody came along and said, “Well, no you don’t.” [laughs] And those moments came at a good time too. And they didn’t do it in a cruel way. They did it with love.

MD: What first drew you to jazz?

Matt: It was the feel. And I think I came to the drums really from jazz. But it depends on who you are. Some people who are a little older than me, a lot of it for them probably started from Ringo, right? And as much as I love the Beatles, I was too young to know.

I first saw Buddy Rich on the show Here’s Lucy. And my buddy also had this record called Rich Versus Roach. Max Roach improvised with the bass on “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Buddy plays a solo that’s phenomenal too. But to me, Max Roach really was singing, and it spoke to me.

But what I’m still marveled by is that every situation—and I’m lucky—but every situation that I’m involved with, I’m still learning and gaining so much inspiration from it. And one of the things that I’m just tickled about is that over a year I play with such a wide range of musicians and settings, and, even in one night, a wide range of feels. And I just feel like that’s part of the day. And I don’t put any project over anything else. Nothing’s more important, and there’s nothing I’d rather do. It’s those people you’re playing with that really make that difference.

And you never know. Tomorrow I may meet some musician that I’ve never played with before, and that could be a real changer. Like with the “unventing” concept from the sermon. There’s something about that to me. So I think one of the main things is to remain curious until the day they—whatever choice is made—they shut the lid or whatever. [laughs]

The human aspect of jazz is still really the key. I think the thing that really got me turned on to jazz was when I saw Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, and Oscar Peterson. They were three beacons of joy, of humor, of everything. I didn’t really understand what was going on at the time, but it was great. I mean I think I did understand, but I didn’t know technically what was going on. But I felt that music. When my friend and I saw the Basie Orchestra, we actually met Mr. Basie, and we met [longtime Basie guitarist] Freddie Green. They were so friendly, and they were playing a high school gymnasium in Chillicothe, Illinois. They played that night like they were playing wherever. They were really giving it up.

Louie Bellson was also a big influence. He was from Illinois too, and he would come around fairly often as a guest at a college or high school. We’d go, and he’d remember you and your name. And that made you feel really important and inspired. I didn’t realize at the time how heavy he was. But the kindness that he conveyed was a real influence. He’d ask, “Hey, Matt, have you been practicing?” It inspired you. I was able to see these musicians’ abilities to lift others’ spirits.

MD: Did any of those experiences inspire you to teach?

Matt: I had a great teacher as a young person—John Larson. He had a distinct way of teaching. He taught what he knew. He was imaginative with it, and he cared. And it was always evolving. And I took one very important lesson with George Marsh, who totally turned my movement and posture around. I also took a seminar with Bob Moses during that same summer of ’84 in Boston. That was another serious life-changer. But Bob had an aesthetic and he had a way of conveying what his thoughts were about this. And I love that.

Some people are teachers directly, and some people you just learn a lot from by watching them or just being around them. And then other people have ways of saying, “I think you could try this.” So I had the ability to do that, I think. I felt that teaching is a good thing to do, and I enjoy it very much.

I really love teaching ensembles. I like the private lesson aspect of what I do. But I love that at the New School, for example, I teach ensembles. I also have saxophone, guitar, and bass players study with me. I love that I can just help people with music. And I don’t play those instruments, so I’m not teaching them that. But I convey what I’ve learned from bassists or sax players about sound, or even what I learned about sound from my wife. She was such a great violinist. I learned so much about sound and music from her. One of the things I miss most—I mean, I miss so much about her being gone—but one of the things I miss is that I could ask her questions like, “What’s this in music mean?” There are obviously many other things I miss more, but she was so knowledgeable about music.

I’m very fortunate to surround myself in my own bands with some really great communicators. Not only communicating from their instruments, but they’re able to really communicate about what they do. Terell Stafford, Jeff Lederer, Gary Versace, Ron Miles, Dawn Thomson…the list goes on. I’ve learned so much about their philosophies. And we didn’t sound each other out before we got going—you find those journeys when you’re together.

MD: Is there a concept they all share?

Matt: I think the overall concept is probably presence. You’re present and you’re in it. You’ve done everything to be ready, but when it comes time to play, you’re ready and present to be there. You’re flexible, and you trust. All those factors make a difference.

At Monterey a few weeks ago, Joe Lovano read one of the Honey and Salt poems. Joe had this presence when he walked out, without his saxophone, to read. He was confident, in the moment, fearless, vulnerable—all those things that allow people in. And vulnerability is important. We might think that everybody gets protected a little too much. And when they don’t have that vulnerability, it doesn’t let people in. But having that vulnerability when you see someone play with rough edges, that’s key. That makes us realize that they’re human, and, in turn, makes us want to be even more endeared to them.

We’re talking about people that just have this presence on the bandstand. People like Peter Erskine, Billy Hart, Jeff Hamilton, or Jimmy Cobb. Whatever they’re playing, it’s hugging you, whether you’re on the bandstand or in the audience. That’s what makes them unique. You hear them, and you know who they are.

Sometimes I think we’ve had to codify education. But you need to let people be who they are, because we can’t control it. I want students to know things, and I want them to be curious. But their journey is going to be completely different from mine. And it gets back to what music can be for them, not what I think it should be for them. They may take a completely different route. For example, Andrew Cyrille and Rashied Ali were both students of Philly Joe Jones. But they found their own ways of playing. And we know who they are. But they got their initial aesthetic, I think, from Mr. Jones.

One of my favorite aspects of this is the community and the support and respect. Even if somebody does something differently from what you do, you have to respect them for the time they’ve put into what they do and the courage and hard work it takes to do this. Nobody gets anything for nothing. Nobody’s handing you anything. The people that put the time in—Allison Miller, Terri Lyne Carrington—it’s amazing.

And again, to me it’s really about the people. The artist Marcel Duchamp said, “I don’t really believe in art—I believe in artists.” And I feel that way about music. I believe in music, but I really believe in musicians. Musicians are the ones that bring music alive. They’re special. Their personalities, how they react to the band, how flexible they are, or how giving and sharing they are—those factors take it to a different level. And I think that’s something that we have there all the time. We have to become aware of it, celebrate it, and work on that aspect of our musicianship. It’s all a balance.

Embracing the Unknown

MD: Do you have any concept behind playing on rims or stands?

Matt: I think they’re just things that you welcome. When you’re in that zone, or you’re working on being a part of that zone, the music and the instrument can be like a fountain. Things keep emerging. And that’s why I don’t want to be bored. I’ve never been bored. I think there’s always something that’s there, and I don’t really need to add stuff to it. I don’t need to travel to exotic places to find it. That process is all good too, but for me it’s all right there. And the community will provide that too.

The last few weeks of these Honey and Salt tours, the music evolved on different nights. When we started a tune, we had no idea where it was going. I would wonder, How could that happen? And then sometimes those little thoughts get in your brain, and you kind of want to push it, or you think it should be this way or that way.

MD: How do you overcome those little thoughts?

Matt: That’s one of those mysteries. Lee Konitz, the great alto saxophone player, is ninety. He said to me fifteen years ago, “You know what I want to do with my remaining years?” I didn’t know. I thought it was going to be some grand project. He said, “I just want to keep doing what I’m doing, but do it better.” Here’s a gentleman who’s played “All the Things You Are” thousands of times, and yet he still finds something new to do on the tune. So part of it is just being open, willing, ready, and also knowing that some nights, whatever.

Mel Lewis once told me, “I never have a bad night. I just have better nights than others.” He was grateful to be a part of the music every night. That’s one of the reasons why we come back to this. Each night we’re so excited to see what kind of trouble we can get into, in a good way.

And those accidents create new opportunities. That’s beautiful when something goes to a different place because you dropped something, or the tune starts and the bass doesn’t, or the saxophone player has to change reeds. You can’t just stop. You keep going. All those kinds of things are just welcoming.

With Tamir Hendelman and Marco Panascia, I’ve known them for a while. We’ve already had a nice band aesthetic. We knew the music, but we went up there really for that moment. Not to be like, “We almost have it.” You need to have it be what it’s going to be at that point and be flexible and go for it. You want to care, but you don’t want to be too careful, and you don’t want to be careless. To me, the ultimate word to describe it is carefree, where you’ve got it together, you’re around likeminded people, and the music can just go places. It’s carefree, but we do care. We want it to be of excellence.

And that’s something that you need to promote too. Why does it have to be “almost”? The music should be totally what you want it to be, or what you hear the possibilities of it being. To me that effort takes it to another level. And I think that’s something I learned from my mother, even about small projects. If I had to put together a trifold poster for a science fair, why can’t I put the time in to have it be special? I think I got a lot of that from my parents about being unique. They welcomed it too, and I value that influence.

So I’m not complacent. I do want things to be of excellence. I want it to be fun and inclusive, and I want it to go places. But I also really want it to be a journey of who the musicians are and how I’ve set up an environment to allow them to be something. And that’s a word I love to use a lot as well—allow. As a fellow player, as a listener, how do you allow the people to be a part of the journey? And there are some amazing allowers out there. They make you sound so great by what they do or how they welcome, surprise, and engage you, and maybe even make you uncomfortable to the point where you have to figure out what to do. They may collide with you, and you have to figure out what to do. You collide, offer, and receive. It’s all of that, and it’s a fun way of approaching it.

Wilson’s Kit

Drums: Craviotto

A. 6.5×14 snare with custom wood-burned design by Johnny Craviotto
B. 8×12 tom
C. 14×14 floor tom
D. 14×18 bass drum

Cymbals: Zildjian
1. 13″ K Constantinople hi-hats
2. 20″ K Constantinople Hi-Bell Low ride
3. 20″ K prototype ride with three rivets
4. 22″ A Swish Knocker with six rivets

Heads: Remo, including Coated Vintage Ambassador snare batter and Ambassador snare-side, Coated Ambassador tom batters and Clear Ambassador resonants, and Clear Emperor bass drum batter and Fiberskyn resonant

Hardware: DW

Sticks: Zildjian John Riley signature sticks, Regal Tip wire and Fat Cat plastic brushes, and assorted mallets

Honey and Salt

MD: Where did the inspiration come from for this project?

Matt: I grew up in the same area as Carl Sandburg. As you get older, you might become more loyal or allegiant to your region. You realize where you’re from, and you start to realize that there are connections to things. And I think you see that in your parents, your siblings, and your community, and you’re influenced by them.

As I got older I realized that Sandburg was interested in jazz, which is something I’m interested in. I guess we met in the middle—he died in 1967, when I was almost three years old. But I found out that we shared an interest in terms of what we do. I started to realize how—again, it’s coming back to the concept of unventing—you start to gather these influences. The great bassist Chris Lightcap said, “You are what you listen to.” And so you gather from the records you listened to, the food you ate, the art you’ve seen, or the books you’ve read. You start to ask, What inspired these people to create these things?

One time at Stanford for a jazz workshop, [bassist] Martin Wind and I were watching a jam session at a coffeehouse. This young man was sitting across from us with two laptops hooked together, working with a keyboard on his lap, and he had all of these crazy formulas written down. I leaned to him and said, “Sorry, I don’t mean to be nosy, but I have to express that that’s really amazing what you’re working on.” He turned to me and said, “You know what? What these guys are doing up here on stage, that’s amazing.” Here’s a guy working with these formulas and two laptops who was more fascinated with what the band was doing on “All the Things You Are” or “Autumn Leaves.” So I think as human beings we have to respect and see others’ gifts. You want to take those things in.

I’m always more interested to find out what people are into other than music. For me, it was poetry. I really like Mr. Sandburg, and I think the regional aspect of it connected me more than seeing someone I liked. I’m from that same soil. Just like the people from New Orleans, Houston, or St. Louis share that. Your heritage should play a part in what you’re offering to the world.

MD: How did you approach adapting the poems into a tune?

Matt: “Choose” to me was obviously a march. “The single clenched fist lifted and ready,” that rhythm alone [sings the melody to “Choose”], that just said it. “Soup” seemed like this story that had a resolution. It’s not a traditional blues per se, but it has the blues feeling to it. “We Must Be Polite” seemed to have this whimsical kind of vibe, and I’ve always loved that New Orleans clave feel, and that Bo Diddley beat specifically.

I just wanted each song to have a different flavor. And in the case of “Offering and Rebuff,” “I Sang,” or “Stars, Songs, Faces,” to really take those words and have them be lyrics, that process was really fun.

In “Anywhere and Everywhere People,” I noticed that certain words showed up a lot. “Anywhere,” “everywhere,” “nowhere,” and “seen” are in that poem quite a bit. So I thought if I wrote little themes that go with each of those words, it could almost be like playing a sample. We recorded the music, and then we recorded little horn samples that go with each of those words and played them different ways. So when Christian McBride recited it, he knew the groove and the horns’ rhythm. And we just added those samples to those words. When we do it live, we stretch it a bit. When we get to “seen,” we might let the metric aspect of it go for a little bit and sit on “seen” before starting back up. We’ve gotten pretty free with it in that regard. But we formatted that part to be a departure.

And again I want each track to have a personality, but also be able to have a link that does tie them all together in terms of aesthetics and theme. We didn’t really worry about the sequence of mixing slow or fast tunes. We just put them together. And my producer, Matt Balitsaris, and I have a great working relationship. So again, this stuff doesn’t come by itself. Sometimes moments would come up, and he’d shake his head a little bit and ask, “What are you trying to go for here?” I’d say, “I have this. It’s going to happen. I can feel it.” So we’d try it. Again, you create that trust, and then I trust him. There are some things that he did on his own that I thought would work. Or there were accidents.

MD: How do you handle an accident in the moment?

Matt: The other night, we were playing “Bubbles,” which is a tune from one of my other records that has a poem. I was a little tired, and I started reciting “As Wave Follows Wave” instead. Nobody even thought a second about it. We did that, and then they got to a point where we start repeating “As Wave Follows Wave.” I did a second recitation while they kept that section going underneath “Bubbles.” I didn’t tell anybody, “Keep it going; I’m going to do this.” We didn’t explain it. But there again, we just welcomed something new. In the words of [vibraphonist] Stefon Harris, “Mistakes aren’t mistakes. You just think of them as new opportunities.”

One of the great things that I think is beautiful about jazz music, other than the feel or what’s involved in it, is the musician’s ability to be flexible and adaptable in the moment. I think all music does that to a certain extent. But jazz, that’s one of the styles that really allows it. That’s the excitement of it. And I think people can sense when something is going down. They know when it’s not going the way it’s supposed to, or they know that they’re in for something special.

Wilson on His Favorites

Buddy Rich and Max Roach
Rich Versus Roach

I remember the day I heard Max solo with bass accompaniment on “Sing, Sing, Sing.” I thought, Wow, I want to do THAT!

Various Artists
The Drums

This is a three-LP set [on Impulse! Records] that my brother got me for Christmas when I was thirteen years old. It spanned from Baby Dodds through Barry Altschul. I heard Sid Catlett, Papa Jo Jones, Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, Dannie Richmond, Shelly Manne, Paul Motian, Sunny Murray, and many more for the first time on this record. This was monumental in opening me up to what the possibilities of jazz drumming could be.

Miles Davis
Workin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet

I heard this in a record store, ran up to the counter and inquired what it was, and bought it right then. Philly Joe Jones’ ride cymbal melody is so buoyant, and you can see the sound because it’s so clear. It remains the benchmark for my cymbal sound.

Old and New Dreams

This record just hugs you. Ed Blackwell plays melodies on the ride cymbal, snare, toms—everywhere! I was fortunate to play in bands led by saxophonist Dewey Redman and by bassist Charlie Haden [Blackwell’s bandmates, along with cornet player Don Cherry, in Old and New Dreams]. Wow, talk about dreams coming true. I played trio with them one night in Montreal. I actually pinched myself and said, “I really am here.”

Albert Ayler
Love Cry

I heard this on the radio while on the road and bought it the next day. The sound just speaks to me. Milford Graves paints, aligns, and collides, all the while lifting the music with power and grace.