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Matthew Kassel

Matthew Kassel

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The Underappreciated Jack Wilson

December 5 2012

In Richard Cook's dense and scholarly book, Blue Note Records: The Biography, the late British jazz critic commends the work of Francis Wolff and Alfred Lion, co-founders of Blue Note, for recording Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons and James P. Johnson, innovators of the boogie-woogie and stride piano styles. "[T]hese beautiful sessions," Cook writes, "suggest that Blue Note might have gone on to compile a piano history of jazz."

It's a good point he makes. At the same time, though, it's probably why there are so many under-appreciated pianists hiding in the Blue Note discography. Elmo Hope, Herbie Nichols and Sonny Clark come to mind.

Jack Wilson, too, strikes me as one of those pianists. He seems, however, even more obscure—which is odd, because he had a sensitive touch and a musical sensibility that seemed ideally geared toward commercial success, or at least popularity in the jazz world. By my count, Cook only mentions Wilson once in his Blue Note book, in passing, and the Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings (which Cook wrote with the jazz critic Brian Morton) doesn't include him at all. What accounts for that?

Wilson died in 2007, at the age of 71—unlike Hope, Nichols and Clark, who all passed in the 1960s. (Clark, the youngest among them, was the first to go, in 1963, ravaged by heroin at the age of 31.) At an early age, Wilson was an accomplished pianist and sideman, performing with James Moody in 1953 and working with Dinah Washington later in the decade.

If you want to get a sense of his style, there are many places to look—in 1963, he put out his first record as a leader, featuring the vibraphonist Roy Ayers. But the best examples of his work might be the three records he made for Blue Note, in the second half of the 1960s, all of them good, and one of them—the last one, cut in 1968—now out of print.

The first was Something Personal, from 1966, which strikes me as the most interesting of the three. With Ayers joining Wilson once again, it's got a chamber-like quality to it; some tracks might lead you to recall the work of the Modern Jazz Quartet, a band that featured the same instrumentation you'll find here: piano, vibes, drums and bass. Except, on two tracks, Ray Brown plays cello and Charles Williams Jr. walks the bass. (About that cello: It's not an instrument you'll see too often in a traditional jazz setting. But here, played pizzicato on the Wilson composition "Most Unsoulful Woman" and "The Sphinx," written by Ornette Coleman, it's lovely and weird and altogether refreshing. It's a sound you'd like to hear more often in jazz.)

Easterly Winds, the second record Wilson made for Blue Note, a year later, features a front-line horn section of Jackie McLean on alto saxophone, Lee Morgan on trumpet and Garnett Brown on trombone. That's a hard bop line-up, and this is a hard bop album. (Billy Higgins is on drums and Bob Cranshaw is on bass.) Even with such exciting players, though, Wilson comes off as the most refined. With that in mind, it's no surprise that the prettiest song—the ballad "A Time For Love," by Johnny Mandel—puts Wilson into a trio context, so he can show us his gifts as a soloist and an interpreter of melody.

On Song for My Daughter (the album that is now out of print), Wilson places himself square in the middle of a lush-sounding string orchestra. It's a fine record, with a good dose of Brazilian rhythm thrown in. The best moments happen when the rhythm section swings at a medium tempo, allowing Wilson take some very good and lyrical solos.

Listening to all three of these records, what really stands out—besides the obvious differences in instrumentation that make each one a unique artistic statement—is Wilson's wonderful piano style, a constant throughout. You get the impression that at this point in his career, he knew what kind of pianist he wanted to be, and he had already gotten there. His approach sounds like a mix between Bud Powell and Horace Silver, with Gene Harris's blues virtuosity thrown in for good measure. Not that he was imitating them; there's a bounce in his touch that sets him apart from those musicians.

Still, it's hard to listen to his playing without thinking of other pianists who developed distinct voices on the Blue Note label before he did. Which is why, perhaps, Jack Wilson is not better known.

It's a fate that befalls many good jazz musicians, whose styles can seem more derivative than authentic, even though they are completely comfortable doing what they do and they have worked for years and years to get the sound they want. The alto saxophonist Sonny Stitt, too often compared to Charlie Parker, comes to mind. So do lots of organists working in the shadow of Jimmy Smith, who codified the soul jazz formula in the 1960s.

Often, though, finding out what actually sets those kinds of musicians apart—what makes them special—can be one of the most rewarding and pleasurable aspects of listening to jazz. And there's a lot of pleasure to be had from listening to the music of Jack Wilson, perhaps the most under-appreciated pianist in Blue Note's wide-ranging discography.

Photos courtesy of Mosaic Images