By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
"About playing in the Down Beat . . ." is how I begin the question.
"How did we get in there?" he hoots. "I knew it could be done, because I had seen it done when I was with the Jimmie Lunceford band. We played a very small cafe in Boston, with a dance floor. In fact, that's how the ensemble sound they became so famous for started. Because what we would do was, we would drop the trumpet parts down an octave, all those high parts we'd have them play. Trombones could play softly up to a certain part. So that when people were eating dinner, we'd play it way down there," he gestures on the down-low. "And then, when you'd hear us count it out, we'd shout it out!
"People were . . . just . . . swinging, and then - wham! - and then . . . they're screaming! SCREAMING!"
Did people at the Down Beat scream? "Oh yeah. What you've got to remember is, the ear appreciates this." To illustrate this thought, Wilson assumes the voice of the ear: "Give me some food here. Let's hear something here."
Now his ear is really talking. "Let me hear something! You gotta feed your ear," he declares, tucking another forkful of waffle into his mouth.
While he was stoking all hungers at the Down Beat and along Central Avenue, elsewhere it was a lamentable time for the jazz orchestra - whole horn sections were drafted away, and the groups that stayed together faced audiences craving not seven-part harmonies but bebop and, soon enough, rhythm & blues. The big band was waning, but it's not like Wilson was among the casualties. His band was still peaking commercially - they'd had successful tours and were offered a prestigious slot on a show with superstar Louis Jordan - when Wilson took the ensemble off the road to begin a period of intense personal music study.
He'd always been ready for a new challenge, and on Central had enjoyed an ongoing, informal seminar with Billy Strayhorn. But it was during this break that Wilson refined the prismatic voicings that gave his orchestra its signature hugeness. Today, live and on the elegant Theme for Monterey,it's like he's trying to superimpose not just his harmonies and rhythms, but his impatience upon a place renowned for its placidity. Commissioned for last summer's Monterey Jazz Festival, Theme for Montereystarts out with soprano saxophonist Scott Mayo soothing all before him on "Romance." It's the first expression of a theme that gets vamped and revamped over the next 45 minutes or so. But if Monterey is the start, Wilson sets out for faster, brighter places; the record is utterly metropolitan, resolutely big-city in its reach. This isn't contemplative, reflective, rustic or ready for the golf course. And if Wilson was kicking it surfside upstate, I bet he'd be on the cellular to Snooky, getting a report on the doings in town. The soloists - among them Oscar Brashear on trumpet, trombonist George Bohanon and tenor saxophonist Randall Willis - also burn with the heat of hotter locales.
After "Romance" comes "Lyon's Roar," picking up the tempo. The orchestra leader's son, guitarist Anthony (who leads his own sharp group), delivers a measured, lightly swinging statement; by tune's end it has given way to a tenor battle, then ensemble wails. There's something in here about gracefully abandoning yourself to the group, about letting the massed blasts wash over you without ever losing your balance, your place in the world. It's there on "Lyon's Roar," and it's there when Wilson conducts his orchestra. He looks so damned excited to be up there, like however good it is for everybody else, where he stands it's the best of all.
At the end of the Moonlight set - after an arrangement of "Summertime" that's like a journey to a very langorous planet - the band kicked into the song that has become their theme, "Jammin' in C." And when they counted off and shouted it out, the bandleader smiled, turned to the crowd, and placed his hands over his ears. I'm sure he could hear the music just fine. Can you feel that? he was asking, an amazed look on his face. For one night, at least, the ear had got its fill.