Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Don't recall if I recounted this before here (I have elsewhere), but the first so-called "loft jazz" event I attended, in May of 1976 at La Mama, though advertised as a Roscoe Mitchell/Malachi Favors duo, turned out to be a Mitchell/Oliver Lake/Phillip Wilson performance, and a memorable one. Mitchell came in first and played about 20 minutes of solo alto. Lake then ambled into the space, took out his curved soprano and joined in for another 15-20 minutes. Then Wilson appeared, set up his drum kit and accompanied the two for another, who knows, half-hour. I had the impression that Mitchell had no idea who, if anyone, would be joining him when he began.

I met Phillip later that year after I'd moved down to NYC and begun working at Environ. He tended to hang out there a good bit and was one of the warmest, most enjoyable people I encountered on the scene. I'd loved his underpinning of Hemphill's band on "The Hard Blues" from "Coon Bid'ness", as well as his work on the recently issued album of Mitchell's, "Old/Quartet". I used to mentally divide musicians into "dry" or "wet" and Wilson was the most liquid of drummers. I think it was a few years later that I realized I'd heard him earlier than I knew at the time: he was drumming with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band when they played Woodstock. In fact, it's a Wilson piece(co-authored with Gene Dinwiddie), "Love March" iirc, that's included on the original recording of the event.

I have a very fond memory of Phillip--I forget the group context but it was at Environ--in the midst of a rather furious solo at a climactic moment, bringing back his right arm to smash at the ride cymbal and stopping about an inch away for just a second or two, then continuing on elsewhere. I don't doubt that it wasn't the first time a drummer had exercised this gambit but it was my first exposure to same. The effect was magical: there was no sound but the sound you expected to hear was nonetheless experienced, if only in your head.

It was fairly obvious that Phillip had substance issues of various kinds. After Environ closed, I saw him around at shows once in a while, generally not looking so well. Still, it was a great shock to learn of the particulars of his violent death in 1992. Very sad. How dispiriting that I'm unable to find even a single photo of him on-line.

Deadline's "Down by Law" (Celluloid, 1985) seems to have been more or less a Wilson project, or as much as such a thing is possible with Laswell in tow. It's essentially an Afro-Beat manqué recording, "updating" the sound with the then-ubiquitous DMX machines, an effect that screams "1985" like no other. Less manqué than it might have been given the presence on three of the six cuts of Manu Dibango. Odd and Laswellian assortment of others including Bernie Worell, Steve Turre, Olu Dara (wielding his great wooden trumpet! Whatever happened to that? Where, for that matter, are all the reed trumpets? Who else aside from Eddie Harris and Rahsaan played them? You'd think they'd be around among all the young eai trumpeters....), Paul Butterfield hisself on harmonica on a track and Jaco on the same cut (I'm pretty sure his only appearance in my collection).

It's dated but kinda fun, The tracks plod a bit--necessarily given the electronic percussion--but they're catchy and funky, none more so than "Makossa Rock", with an insidiously gripping theme and some fine, fine Dara. Laswell produced a tone of things more or less along this line in the 80s; this might be one of the more effective, although in a light manner, the kind of thing you'd be pleasantly surprised to hear at some public function but, upon reflection, wouldn't be so out of place.

Just a bit hard to listen to, thinking about Mr. Wilson and what might have been.


djll said...

Hey, Brian.

I had the intense pleasure of seeing Wilson with Frank Lowe's quartet at the Tin Palace on my first night in New York in 1978 around Christmastime. The other players were Fred Hopkins and Olu Dara. Wilson bashed his drums so bad he had to borrow a bass drum pedal from Stanley Crouch, who then proceeded to beat up a woman at the bar. I went into the bathroom to blow my nose and Lowe came in with "Hey! Let me have a piece of that!" thinking, I guess, that I was shoveling snow up my nostrils.

Those were the good old days!

The music was fantastic, of course. Phillip Wilson had this incredible loose-yet-tight funkiness to his playing, no matter the groove or nongroove. Lowe made a deep impression on me as well, with a Sonny Rollins-level intelligence showing in every phrase. Instead of the celebrated improviser practice of weeding out all the notes you "shouldn't" play before playing them, Lowe seemed to take every phrase and try it every way he could think of playing it, rhythmically and melodically accordioning and touch-typing each one, on the beat, against the beat, etc. until he moved to the next one. Morton Feldman's approach and the writing of Beckett come to mind for comparison.

Captain Hate said...

I found a picture of him on discogs.com. It's not a particularly good one, sad to say. The first time I remember hearing him was on Butterfield's In My Own Dream (which I remember not liking so much because there wasn't enough guitar, guitar, guitar-ar-ar; yeah I was young and stoopid) being mentioned as one of Elvin Bishop's buddies "and Wilson too" on the boozy narrative to "Drunk Again".

His drumming first made me sit up and take notice on "Old" off Old/Quartet by Roscoe Mitchell's Quartet. I recently ran across a download of a trio of his with Leo Smith and Johnny Dyani on Circle Records Fruits that holds up pretty damn well (I remember seeing it in rekkid stores in the late 70s and never pulled the trigger).

Bombshelter Slim said...

Had the great good fortune to catch Mr. Wilson in action once, in an Anthony Braxton quartet with Wadada Leo Smith and Dave Holland. It's a shame no recordings appear to exist of this short-lived unit.

CrocodileChuck said...

in the '70's in St. Louis, BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups: Howard Johnson, playing as a pick-up with Daryl Mixon on bass and Phillip Wilson on drums. I sat in front of the drums and couldn't believe his self possession, fire, insouciance and dynamics, sometimes his rolls exploding from the kit.

yearslater, in the '80's walking down Delmar Blvd in University City past Cicero's, hearing this amazing drum playing from the basement, a jazz drummer, both loose and funky, playing with the most amazing dynamics. even though I suspected it was him, I was shocked to peer down and see him, the only musician to have played with the Art Ensemble of Chicago and at Woodstock.