After a strong showing on 2010’s acclaimed Spiral, saxophonist, bandleader, composer, and educator Dave Wilson goes into even deeper waters on There Was Never. With the exciting young pianist Bobby Avey (a 2011 Thelonious Monk Competition winner) elevating the proceedings alongside Alex Ritz on drums and Wilson’s frequent collaborator Tony Marino on bass, Wilson leaps to a new level on his superb ZOHO debut. “This is my fourth CD and I feel each one has gotten better,” says the Bronxville native and longtime resident of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “I feel I keep evolving in my own playing, my improvising, my sound, my writing. And this record represents where I’m at right now.”
Avey, Ritz and Marino, who have been playing together in saxophonist and NEA Jazz Master Dave Liebman’s band for the past three years, brought a ready-made chemistry to the session at Red Rock Studio in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. But what most impressed Wilson was some of the chances they took on this highly intuitive session. “We did some playing together beforehand at the Somethin' Jazz club and The Garage in Manhattan and also at the Deer Head Inn in Delaware Water Gap,” says Wilson. “I always like to take these tunes that I’m going to record and play them out with the band and really internalize them before going into the studio.
So there was that cohesiveness going with the rhythm section before the session. But what Bobby came up with in the studio, especially some of the rhythmic type comping ideas he brought to the table, I hadn’t necessarily heard on some of these gigs we played. And his solos were also very rhythmically creative rather than just a lot of fast runs, which really helped make the thing happen. And Tony and Alex also brought a lot of magic to the sessions, to say the least.”
You can hear that kind of spontaneous energy on the super-charged, Afro-Cuban flavored opener The Time Has Come, which introduces Wilson’s bold, authoritative tenor tones and formidable improvisations. Ritz fuels the churning 12/8 groove while Avey’s spiky piano solo and urgent comping on the rubato section has Wilson tapping into some Trane energy. “I started playing the clarinet in grade school and John Coltrane was the guy that got me into playing the saxophone,” he says. “He was really one of the first jazz musicians I heard and the most influential person I listened to. That kind of melodic and emotional approach that you can hear in his playing is something that inspired me, and has so to this day. And I try and tap into that whenever I play.”
Wilson next switches to soprano for bracing interpretations of two pop tunes -- the Grateful Dead’s Cassidy (a Bob Weir-John Barlow song that appeared on the Dead’s 1981album Reckoning) and Brian Wilson’s God Only Knows (an emotive number that appeared on the Beach Boys’ landmark 1966 album Pet Sounds). “There was a period of my life, in the late ‘70s-early ‘80s, when I really dug the Grateful Dead, especially Jerry Garcia” says Wilson, who covered the Dead’s “Friend of the Devil” on Spiral. ”I saw them about 30 times back then and had friends who saw them 70-100 times. The deal with them, they had this collective improvisation thing happening on stage and those jams always appealed to me. They really started that whole phenomenon of jam bands and I wanted to capture some of that energy here. With ‘Cassidy,’ I really took the song and re-arranged it. On the soloing there is some consonant playing but we are going in and out of that inside-outside thing on our interpretation and trying to create a collective/Jam type of improvisation.”
Wilson showcases some of his most lyrical playing on “God Only Knows.” “It’s such a familiar piece so I wanted to make a more personal statement with it,” he explains. “When I cover pop tunes, they are first favorite ones of mine that I have a personal relationship with; then I try to put different twists into it and transform the tune around. So one of the things we did was put a solo section in the middle, which for the most part had little to do with the original tune, and I got my melodic thing going. I’m not ashamed to play melodically. It’s part of my background, what I like to do. I can go outside and play ‘Giant Steps’ changes as well, but playing melodically is just a part of me. And I tried to go for something emotional and really expressive with the melody on that tune.”
The driving title track There Was Never is based on the standard “There Will Never Be Another You.” A suite-like piece, it travels from funky section to swing section and culminates in a mambo section that has Wilson blowing with ferocious abandon over the top. “I love playing Afro-Cuban grooves,” says Wilson. “There’s a lot of freedom in it.” Pianist Avey also opens up on his solo on this rhythmically charged vehicle.
The calypso flavored Smooth Sailing is a melodic nod to Wilson’s love of being out on the water with the wind propelling him along while the expansive 10-minute Master Plan showcases some of the saxophonist’s most impressive playing on the session. “It’s basically a concept where the head has a mixed meter, going back and forth between 3/4 and 4/4, and then the solos happen going in and out of a B pedal tone in the bass. Harmonically there’s no chord changes, so we’re soloing free. It’s kind of like an Ornette Coleman piece, in a way, where we’re playing free but it’s a swinging rhythm.” Avey’s solo here, which builds to a turbulent, swinging crescendo, is typically provocative and expansive, showcasing his remarkably fertile ideas and outstanding facility.
Wilson’s Feeling Peaceful carries a graceful bossa nova feel while his radical 12/8 re-imagining of George Gershwin’s Summertime has him unleashing in the altissimo range on his tenor. “I love to play free utilizing overtones and harmonics,” he says. “In this sense, not only Trane but Pharoah Sanders was a big influence on me. I used to see Pharoah at the Village Vanguard in the ‘70s and I loved his albums Thembi and especially Karma, which had the 32-minute track ‘The Creator Has a Master Plan.’ And though he’s great at honking and screaming, he’s also a very melodic, spiritual player. And I try to incorporate both aspects in this tune, which is one of the more popular tunes when we play it out. We really stretch out live. It can go for 15 minutes or more.”
The collection closes with a free jazz exploration on On the Prairie, which has an engaging melody upfront that pulls the listener in. And then Wilson, on soprano sax, and his empathetic crew takes the listener on an adventurous ride. “I’m really looking for things that have a soulful quality to them,” says Wilson of his process. “I am looking for something that’s
going to grab the listener, that’s maybe got a little bit magic.”
Between Wilson’s depthful playing on tenor and soprano saxophones, Avey’s rhythmically charged comping and expansive soloing on piano and the consummate rhythm tandem hookup between bassist Marino and drummer Ritz, there is a great deal of magic indeed happening throughout There Never Was. -- Bill Milkowski