GUEST POST: Josh Sinton on Ed Wilkerson, Jr —
A Gentleman from Chicago

Josh Sinton is one of the most thoughtful and expressive players around, as mindful of the tradition as he is willing to extend and (periodically) subvert it. Destination: Out was lucky enough to host Sinton’s band Ideal Bread at our Loft/Lab series last year, and we were treated to reworkings of some of Steve Lacy’s most radical works. Once again we are very proud and pleased to be hosting Sinton as he breaks down the music of an unsung master; in this case, Edward Wilkerson, Jr. — someone we’ve long known too little about.

Ed Wilkerson, Jr
Light on the Path
Sound Aspects : 1994

EWJ, tenor, clarinet; Rod McGaha, trumpet; Harrison Bankhead, bass; Reggie Nicholson, drums.

I lived in Chicago from 1989 until 1999. And during that time I went to as many live music shows as I could. Having moved there from the rural suburbs of southern New Jersey, one could say I was quite starved for musical enrichment. I had also, for no reason I can discern, gotten it into my head that I might want to be a jazz musician. Even though I saw very little live jazz growing up, once I moved I was compelled to go and find any living example of this music I could find.  In Chicago this often led me to places like the Velvet Lounge, the New Apartment Lounge, the Green Mill, Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase (back when it was in the lobby of the Blackstone Hotel), the (now long-gone) Bop Shop, and Hot House (the first incarnation located in the heart of Wicker Park). These last two places were the most important since they were easier to get to via public transit and they often programmed the music I was most drawn to.

As it turned out, an awful lot of this music was being played by members of the AACM. These were the ones grouped into the “second” and “third” generations of that indescribable organization: Kahil El’Zabar, Ameen Muhammad, Dushun Mosley, Harrison Bankhead, Ernest Dawkins, Steve Berry, Avreeayl Ra, Ari Brown, Mwata Bowden, Hanah Jon Taylor, Douglas Ewart, Reggie Nicholson and most importantly, Edward Wilkerson, Jr. III. This last one made an enormous impact on my playing and decision to become a musician.

I can’t say why, but going back through some of his recordings recently after years of absence, I’m hearing some of the same things that got me so excited about his playing and writing: the attention to detail (you never get the sense that he’s grasping for notes, he’s very certain about what he’s improvising and writing); the intense focus (even more so live, his playing has this ability to rivet me to my seat and I lose all perception of past and future); the flexibility of his playing (few players can match his dynamic range; sadly, few saxophonists even think to have a dynamic range). But most of all, it’s that sound of his:  intense and burly, infinitely flexible and at times louder than hell.  Often he would start his solos with a large handkerchief stuffed down the bell of his tenor sax.  This was to muffle his naturally cavernous sound.  But if his solo built up a head of steam, the handkerchief would eventually come out and the sound would explode out of the bell like some unholy combination of a landslide and a speeding freight train.  And maybe that’s the magic that would catch hold of me: the immense solidity of his sound combined with its unbelievable gracefulness and speed.

The first track, “Layaway,” is for me classic Wilkerson.  That is, this is the Ed Wilkerson I got to regularly hear during my Chicago tenure.  It’s from a fairly obscure CD under his name called Light on the Path.  Formally, it’s a surprisingly straight-forward affair.  And while the head-solo-head format is unsurprising, the texture of the tune is pure Wilkerson. Listening to this, again, I’m struck by his saxophone sound.

In many ways, it’s a sound born of the sonic discoveries of the 1960s.  There’s a tough, shouting quality to it that shares more than a little with Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp’s conceptions. And take it from a saxophonist: what Wilkerson is doing is intensely difficult. To get this sound, he’s using a very hard reed on a very open mouthpiece. In other words, he has to blow a lot of air with a lot of force. This kind of physical exertion prevents most humans from being able to play quickly and accurately (too much of your energy is going into just getting a sound). But through some kind of unfathomable alchemy, Wilkerson achieves both a big sound and remarkable dexterity.

As an aside, does anyone know anything about the trumpet player on this track, Rod McGaha?  I’ve never seen his name anywhere else and his playing is just monstrous.  Someone should get him and Ron Miles together someday.  I’d pay good money for that show.

Eight Bold Souls
Eight Bold Souls
Sessoms : 1987

EWJ, alto sax, tenor sax, alto clarinet, clarinet, compositions; Mwata Bowden; baritone sax, tenor sax, clarinet; Richard Jess Brown, Jr., bass; Aaron Dodd, tuba; Robert Griffin, Jr., trumpet, flugelhorn; Isaiah S. Jackson, Jr., trombone, ram’s horn; Naomi Millender, cello; Dushun Mosley, trap drums, percussion.

“Dervish” is the third song on the very first Eight Bold Souls record, their eponymous debut.  It’s a ten-year rewind from the previous track, which is pretty remarkable.  It means that from early on, Wilkerson had already settled into that utterly unique sound of his.

He’s the first to solo and opens with that gorgeous shout. What might be lost on some listeners is that he’s not playing outside the changes here — at least not at first. That shout still firmly confirms the tonic of the piece, but what he does vary is the timbre of the song. So by radically changing just one aspect of this well-wrought tune, he’s vaulted the piece into a different place.  This to my ears is one of the really unique contributions of African-American music to the world’s music.  Yes, it has forever changed the sound accepted rhythms, melodies and harmonies.  But to me, black and white people colliding in America created a truly unique sound that immediately identifiable.  Wilkerson, ever the composer, ends his solo by playing a distorted version of the successive theme.  This is also one of the really satisfying things about his playing.  Like Andrew Hill, Duke Ellington, Bela Bartok, Heremto Pascoal, Wilkerson’s always extending the given parameters of the composition he’s in.  It’s never random.  It’s of a piece with previous and successive elements.

Eight Bold Souls
Eight Bold Souls
Sessoms : 1987

[same as above]

“Chapel Hill” is from the same record.  It’s a great demonstration of the individuality of Wilkerson’s compositional voice.  The first thing that jumped out for me is the obvious debt it owes to Stravinsky’s music.  Not so much Agon-era Stravinsky, as much as La Histoire Soldat-Igor.  Igor’s been given more than his fair-share of lip service since the 50s in creative music circles, but Wilkerson’s one of the few I’ve heard who have demonstrated a deep aural understanding of Stravinsky’s oeuvre. But Wilkerson also knows how to write a good jazz chart.  Plenty of composers have demonstrated a similar understanding of Stravinsky’s work, but I can think of very few who also had the compassion, trust and bravery to make space for individuals to improvise freely within these structures.  Usually the deep-understanding-of-the-composer goes hand-in-hand with a dictator-like control of the moment-to-moment.  In an utterly unique way, Wilkerson grasps the soul of these modern constructors.  And the rhythmic feel of Eight Bold Souls is something to marvel at.  Even with all those repeated (almost stuttered) notes of the themes, the players understand the importance of rhythmic momentum.  The notes are always going somewhere.  This is in contradistinction to much of the repeated rhythms of several famous minimalist composers who’s repeated notes are meant to be as static as possible.

Ed Wilkerson, Jr
Light on the Path
Sound Aspects : 1994

EWJ, tenor, clarinet; Rod McGaha, trumpet; Harrison Bankhead, bass; Reggie Nicholson, drums.

And as ferociously as Wilkerson can play, he can also be equally and devastatingly delicate.  Check the solo on “Light on the Path,” dedicated to the sadly unknown “Light” Henry Huff.  He makes the alto clarinet (!) sound shakuhachi-like; as if the instrument will evaporate at any moment, and yet through some magical force of will, he keeps the horn in one piece.  In this solo, Wilkerson uses tones, not sounds, to build his solo.  Not only that, but this is an eminently singable improvisation, owing to it being a very tonal solo.  This takes some guts.  Once you’ve traveled far enough out there, as he so ably does on Layaway, why on earth would you ever want to come back?  Well, even Sun Ra demonstrated that there were some advantages to speaking in the lingua franca of the planet on which you’re trapped.  And one of those advantages might be that it just feels right to do so.  Plenty of great players I have heard would doubt this feeling, but a few them, including Wilkerson, make the conscious choice to obey their instincts.  And by making this choice to be tonal, Wilkerson has immediately differentiated himself from his predecessors in the AACM.  Wilkerson has something to say about this:

At some point we have to question certain things that we have accepted as part of what the AACM is about, certain things that have become our AACM trademarks, like the little instruments and stuff.  Just the way they’re used musically, it’s become a standard kind of trademark.  I remember somebody did a concert, and he said, I don’t wanna hear none of them little bells!  I was like, yeah!  Because it was accepted that there’s going to be certain textures, a certain approach.  It was adventurous maybe twenty years ago, but I think we haven’t really been trying to challenge that with something to replace it or make it more current – I don’t know, more something.  I think that’s the danger of having an old organization like this.  At some point you have to sit down and reevaluate, and I don’t think we do that often enough.

[Wilkerson quoted by George Lewis in A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, p. 454]

Shadow Vignettes
Birth of a Notion
Sessoms : 1986

EWJ, conduc. and comp.; David B. Spencer, Orbert Davis, Robert Griffin, and Ameen A. C. Muhammad, trumpet; Edwin Daugherty, alto, clarinet, flute; Ernest Dawkins, alto, clarinet; Vandy Harris, tenor, soprano; James Perkins, tenor, soprano, baritone sax; Mwata Bowden, baritone sax, clarinet; Ari Brown, alto, clarinet; ‘Light’ Henry Huff, soprano sax; Steve Berry, Isaiah S. Jackson, Sam Walton, Greg Frizell, and Martin Lampkin, trombone; Daniyal Khabir Abdul Sami Ricardo Riperton, piano; Yosef Ben Israel, Richard Brown, bass; Reggie Nicholson, drums, vibraphone; Kahil El’Zabar, earth drums, sanza, gongs, tympani; Don Lawson, Tom Wade, and Phyllis McKenny, violin; Naomi Millender, Rita Warford, vocals.

The final track is another deep cut from the only recorded document (that I know of) of Wilkerson’s 25-piece big band, Shadow Vignettes.  It’s the fourth track from 1984’s Birth of a Notion. I have to admit it’s not my favorite composition of Wilkerson’s. The syrupy string voicings are far from unique, the ensemble (including the piano) are uncomfortably out of tune, and the bass has that sound that most recorded rhythm sections of the 1980’s used, which I’ve never really liked.  But all of these things are inconsequential in the face of two irrefutable facts:

1.  The unbelievable (and spontaneous!) contributions of Rita Warford and “Light” Henry Huff.

2.  Wilkerson’s anticipation of said contributions.

Warford’s singing is a revelation.  She can sing the changes, but she also has a deep and intuitive understanding of r&b and blues singers’ phrasing. AND she’s one of the only singers I’ve heard in the past 30 years who’s made a really personal use of techniques pioneered by Amina Claudine Myers, Jeanne Lee and Leon Thomas.  Huff’s playing is equally revelatory.  He starts off with such ferociously delicate playing that I’m still scratching my head that he got a sound out of his curved soprano at all.  An embouchure that loose with that hard an air-stream and the whole contraption should fall apart.  But it doesn’t.  Not only does it hold together, it gets stronger.  Coming back to this track after so many years (been at least 15 years since I’ve given this a good listen), I realize now it’s one of the few I’ve heard in recent decades that makes a really terrific reuse of the implications laid out in some of my favorite Impulse records, specifically those of Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane.  The musicians don’t parrot those sounds any more than David S. Ware mimics the sounds of Coltrane, Rollins, or Ayler.  But they make clear use (and reuse) of them.

But, my second point is the one that most interests me. Wilkerson can’t have known the specifics of what his soloists were going to do, but he knew what they were capable of and he wrote for that. Not for what they were going to do, but for what they might do.  Now that involves allowing for an endless multitude of possibilities, but instead of pointing the song to a specific outcome, or trying to anticipate for all of them, he took the most difficult road.  He dissolved some of his own compositional personality in favor of letting those of Warford and Huff flower and fill-in the space.  Yes, the backgrounds sound a bit like anyone could have written them, but keep in mind that Ellington wrote more than his fair share of bland arrangements.  And that ‘illegal’ arrangement of the Star-Spangled Banner Stravinsky wrote?  Really not that … distinctive.  But more importantly, keep this in mind, the man who wrote this arrangement is the same one who played that unholy solo at the beginning of this post on Dervish.  Now that’s a true inspiration:  a man with that much of a sonic personality who’s humble enough to subsume it in the name of the music.

There’s a deep geographic dimension to art that disturbs Americans. We’d like to think that we’re cognizant of everything that’s going on in an artistic field at a given moment, but in reality we have such a blinkered view of what’s happening. Really it makes sense. The one thing that almost no one can wrap their brains around (especially those that don’t live here) is how BIG this country is. This isn’t just an abstract notion. This has real, unmitigated consequences.

For those of you living here in New York, quick: what can you tell me about music in Chicago? Is there such a thing as a Chicago “sound?” Who plays that sound? Even better, for those of you living outside of NYC (i.e., most of the planet), what is the “sound” of New York? In my estimation these are unanswerable questions. Only those who live outside these places think otherwise.

While I still occasionally smack my head against the geographic limitations of culture, I still find myself wondering over the lack of geographic awareness in the artistic community. So I’m hoping this essay will not only make a few folks aware of a really creative and generous artist, but also of how geographically restrictive we all are when it comes to discussing art. This is a long-winded way of saying, art can cross all boundaries, but only if we remember to pack it with us. It’s not going to just hop up and follow us out the doors of our homes unbidden.

From 1989 until 1999 I lived in Chicago.  Meanwhile, my parents remained in the rural suburbs of southern New Jersey. I regularly made the 14-hour trip by car to visit them at least twice a year during that time and during those car trips, I always had some Ed Wilkerson in the car to listen to. Most every musician living in Chicago knows who Wilkerson is and has probably heard him.

But very few know of him in New Jersey (I tried). More importantly, very few know of him in the East Coast. This is what I mean.  No matter how much you may think the internet is making the world a smaller place, it’s still only reaffirming what you see and hear outside your real-world front-door. I’m hoping we all remain curious about what we’re missing as much as we’re curious about what we have.

Category Ed Wilkerson, guest posts