Jazz guitarist Anthony Wilson's thirst for beauty
Mixing up jazz with the sound of Brazil hasn't been a terribly new idea since Stan Getz set the template with João Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim in the early '60s. Yet L.A. guitarist Anthony Wilson has returned to that well and discovered something new with his eighth album, "Campo Belo," a self-released recording Wilson will be celebrating in concert at the Blue Whale Saturday night.
Recorded with a quartet of young Brazilian musicians Wilson had met in his travels, "Campo Belo" pulls off the nifty trick of being enriched with the spirit of Brazil but not wholly consumed by it. Direct nods to the region, such as the swerving drive of "Valsacatu," pepper the album, but primarily the record stubbornly resists remaining rooted to any single tradition. The warmly orchestrated "Flor de Sumaré" finds Wilson's crisp tone mingling with clarinet and accordion, while "Elyria" rides a shuffling snare rhythm into sunny, Americana-tinged jazz.
An in-demand guitarist who has backed Diana Krall on tour for the past 10 years, Wilson grew up in L.A. the son of veteran bandleader Gerald Wilson. Next week will also see the premiere of Wilson's suite "The 4-Seasons" as part of a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which features fellow guitarists Julian Lage, Steve Cardenas and Carlos Pinheiro. The project will also be released on CD and DVD, the result of a recent fundraising campaign on Kickstarter.
Here's a conversation with Wilson about his inspiration for "Campo Belo" as well as his defense of beauty in modern jazz, the state of the L.A. scene and the rewards in releasing an album on his own.
What inspired you to turn to Brazil in the making of "Campo Belo"?
This is the second thing that I’ve done in Brazil. I did a record with the guitarist Chico Pinheiro in 2007, but that was a little different because it was a real collaboration. We chose the tunes together and the tunes were meant to be very Brazilian in flavor.
I think there were just certain things about Brazilian music that I came to really value about the way that Brazilian musicians -- especially the people that I had come to know -- approached the music. And I felt like there were three musicians in particular that I wanted to do a quartet album of original music with without having it be, you know, going down and playing Brazilian standards, but taking my own music and allowing the way that they played to infuse the music.
Is there something specific about Brazilian music that draws you in?
There's this combination of sensitivity, responsiveness and innocence in these musicians ... that if the music requires a very spare, beautiful way of playing they don't shy away from it. And I've noticed playing with other musicians in the States maybe that they'll try to fill up space more, or they’ll do more with things. Whereas I found that these guys when I play with them they just leave certain things alone, and allow them to just exist.
Especially like, prettiness. I think right now there's a bit of a reaction against beauty and prettiness in music and in jazz overall. We could find examples of all kinds of people who are playing beautifully and pretty, of course, but I remember an article that I read about Fred Hersch in the New York Times Magazine and somebody said something like "His music is almost too beautiful." He was kind of saying that’s why he thinks Fred Hersch is in some ways a little overlooked right now, there’s just so much beauty there it's almost like people can't take it.
And I think a lot of musicians now in the States are playing with extreme rhythmic complexity or extreme sort of polyphonic complexity. There's certain schools of players that are going a lot more toward dissonance and freedom -- which is all really great stuff. But I've noticed they'll shy away from just playing spaciously, or playing in a pretty way or playing in an extremely melodic way, and so that's started to get left to the sort of quote-unquote “smooth people.” And I wish that it wasn’t such a dichotomy.
Is this your first self-released record?
The record I did with Chico was self-released, but this is the first of my own. I found it great, actually. There’s a lot of work, and there’s a lot of details and just to try to make sure it gets heard is a whole other world of details. I find that really, really rewarding, even though it kicks my ... in the process.
And to know that this is something that I really care about and put out, and I have ownership of it. There’s nobody on the back end who's going to tell me, "You know it didn't do quite as well commercially as I wanted, maybe if you put some Jobim songs on it" -- I'm never going to tell myself that. I know that this is a document of a certain sensibility, a certain point in time and of my desire to work with certain musicians. And that's it.
You’ve been an L.A. guy for a long time. What’s your impression of how the scene is doing at this point?
I wish it was doing better, to be really honest. I just wish there were more places that presented creative music in a way that's respectful. I think you always have an exodus of talented players. They get a bit restless here, and because there's an exodus there's not enough players. Or because there’s no place to play, people are leaving. It all sort of feeds into the same thing.
At the same time, there's so many wonderful young musicians coming up all the time in Los Angeles, just wonderful players. Guys who either are from here or gravitate toward CalArts or young players that have come out of LACSA. One thing I’ve noticed is when I go to gigs in town is I see many more young people than I used to see, that’s already amazing. I think there’s great things happening, I wish there were like four Roccos [Somazzi, jazz promoter and organizer of the Angel City Jazz Festival] and four Blue Whales. It would be so cool.
We have places in L.A. where people don’t listen to the music, and it’s a real drag. They think that talking through music is cool, so why would anybody who’s doing creative music that depends on having a receptive audience want to put themselves through that? So we’ve got an uphill climb, but we’ve got a lot of creative musicians.
-- Chris Barton
Anthony Wilson "Campo Belo" release show with Josh Nelson, piano; Dave Robaire, bass; and Dan Schnelle, drums. The Blue Whale, 123 Astronaut E S Onizuka St., Ste. 301, L.A. Sat., 9 p.m., $10, (213) 620-0908.
Photo: Top, Anthony Wilson onstage at a tribute to Kenny Burrell at the Grammy Museum in 2010. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times. Middle, courtesy the artist.