Ever since Matt Wilson first saw Buddy Rich on an old I Love Lucy rerun, he's taken to hitting things: Initially, it was pots and pans in the living room, later a snare and cymbal on the "PTA and 4-H concert circuit."
An Illinois prairie town native, Wilson made his way to the big city — Wichita, Kan. — for a music degree, then on to Boston, where he would play alongside John Medeski (later of Medeski Martin and Wood) in the esoteric Either/Orchestra. Upon moving to New York in the early '90s, he began a 12-year stint with Dewey Redman, the highly expressive tenor saxman who died in 2006 and inspired Wilson's "In Touch with Dewey."
Along the way, Wilson has played with artists both mainstream (Wynton Marsalis) and extreme (John Zorn). He's also won the DownBeat critics poll's "Rising Star Drummer" award for several years running — jazz stars tend to rise more slowly than their rock counterparts — but never managed to lose his heartland congeniality.
"The reason jazz is such a great music is that everybody is enjoying it in the moment, and it's never gonna happen the same way again," says Wilson. "So the audience and musicians are both part of a journey. I mean, I don't change what I do for the sake of audiences, but I do the most I can, with humor and with whatever else, to really welcome them."
That said, Wilson's quartet has no problem defying expectation onstage: "I don't want anybody to judge what it's gonna be before we do it, because I don't know what it's gonna be before we do it. I feel like we should be able to play any kind of music, and that's what I look for in players, that kind of courage."
It's a lesson Wilson learned from some of the best, including bassist Charlie Haden, with whose Liberation Music Orchestra he frequently plays.
"I mean, his feel is unbelievable," he says of Haden. "And we're both fathers of triplets — he has triplet girls and I have triplet boys — so we call ourselves the 'Father of Triplets Jazz Rhythm Section.' I adore every second that I've ever gotten to play with Charlie."
When leading his own band, Wilson will improvise around anything from Miles Davis' "Two Bass Hit" to War's "Why Can't We Be Friends." He's also a talented composer in his own right, and only slightly bristles when I suggest that drums aren't the most melodic instrument when it comes to writing songs.
"Well, I beg to differ with you about the drums being a melodic instrument. There have been a lot of melodies that I've come up with on the drums. To me, any instrument can be a melodic instrument, and any instrument can not be melodic if everybody just plays a lot of notes. But I usually come up with themes on an acoustic piano at home, and then I'll work with real simple software just to hear the voicings and things like that."
Although exposure to drummers like Art Blakey, Billy Higgins and Elvin Jones has taken Wilson places where Buddy Rich never went, a love for swing continues to inform his work.
"We're just trying to play some nice music and express ourselves," says Wilson. "And sometimes it gets a little crazy, but usually people come along for the trip."