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A Legend in The Making: An Interview with Steve Wilson

By Brian L. Knight

Saxophonist Steve Wilson is one Jazz’s busiest individuals. He is presently on tour with Chick Corea’s Origin, which has been to Europe and across the states and back. He is also the feature saxophonist on bassist Dave Holland’s newest album Points of View. In addition, Wilson has also recorded his fifth album, Generations, which has been released by Concord Records. The album also features Mulgrew Miller (piano), Ben Riley (drums) and Ray Drummond (bass).

Wilson grew up in Virginia where he was exposed to music by both his friends and family. During the 1980s, he moved to New York City where he soon established himself as one of jazz’s premier saxophonists. While taking a little break from his busy schedule with Chick Corea, the Vermont Review caught up with Steve Wilson while he was taking a brief break in California.

Vermont Review: Where Am I calling right now?

Steve Wilson: Hollywood

VR: Are you playing out there right now?

SW: Yeah, we are playing at Catalina’s Bar and Grill. And we were at Yoshii’s last week in Oakland. We finish her on Sunday and leave for Europe next week. We will be there for three weeks.

VR: Have you been to Europe before as a musician?

SW: This will be my 4th or 5th. We actually did an extensive European tour this summer and we went all over Europe. I was there a couple of other times with Dave Holland and Buster Williams.

VR: What is your favorite part of Europe?

SW: It is kind of had to choose. Italy is a favorite. Amsterdam. Then Paris. Those would probably be the top three.

VR: Are you basing those decisions on the beauty of the city or the reception of the crowds?

SW: I think a little of all of it. The audiences all over Europe are great. They really appreciate the music. Italy - there is such a warm spirit there. It maybe have something to do with it being on the Mediterranean. I am a little mystic about it. It is the way that people live. People don’t live in a lifestyle based on competition so the stress level is not as prominent. It is part of their daily fabric and they appreciate the music on a very spiritual level. The audiences all over Europe are generally very wonderful.

VR: That facts seems to exist for all types of music.

SW: Yeah. They really dig music. They are really into the arts there. They have had a few thousands years to evolve to their level.

VR: Is that a reason why a lot of American jazz musicians move to Europe?

SW: I think it has something to do with it. The appreciation level for the artists is present. People really appreciate their artistry. I think they are much more connected with the artistry, They don’t live in a world that is commercially driven as the audiences in the states. I am not saying that to be negative about the United States, it is a different perspective on it.

VR: Where is home right now?

SW: New York City. Manhattan.

VR: Do you play regularly in Manhattan?

SW: Not these days, because I have been on the road so much this year. I had my quartet playing at the Jazz Standard recently. We did a week there. It is relatively new club - it has been open for little over a year now. When Is get the opportunity, I work in clubs around town - Sweet Basils, Village Vanguard. Before it closed, I was working at Bradley’s quite a bit. Unfortunately, that closed a couple of years ago and it is sorely missed. That was a real meeting place for all the musicians. At this point, there is nothing else that has stepped in to take its place. It was a place that you could go and connect with your peers and see all the great musicians play. And there was a lot of tradition there. This year I have been on the road.

VR: Is one good thing about being on the road seeing all the beautiful places?

SW: Well, once you get a chance to see them. A lot of times you arrive at the city that you are playing, have time to take a shower, change, eat and get to the concert. In most cases, you are off the next morning. So, most of the time, you really don’t have a chance to see the places that you are going to. It is really not that much of a sightseeing tour. Airports and the bandstands.

VR: Do you ever get any practice accomplished on the road?

SW: Intermittently. It is hard. First of all, there is usually no time to practice. Most of your day is spent traveling. There is not a lot of preparation time for the concert. So you try to squeeze in some warm up time there and if you get a day off and you are not too tired, one will try to squeeze in some practice. When you are on tour, it is very difficult to get any practice in. You would literally have to sacrifice sleep to do that. For me, it is more important to save the energy for the concert then to spend time practicing. Of course there is music to learn and I will do that with my practice time. Usually Is try to get that in when I am warming up for the concert.

VR: Taking a step back, where did you grow up?

SW: Hampton,. Virginia.

VR: Did you come from a musical family?

SW: Not really. My father sang in the male spiritual choir. I used to go around with them to concerts. More than that, he was a musical enthusiast. He bought a lot of records. He took me to the jazz festivals that happened every year - the George Wayne festivals. It was called the Hampton Jazz Festival. It is still going on even though it is more of an R&B Festival. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, I saw people like Cannonball Adderly, Eddie Harris, Les McCann, Roland Kirk, Sarah Vaughn - the jazz greats. That would happen ever summer. So that and along with the records, is kind of where I developed a taste for music.

VR: So your dad was deep into jazz?

SW: Yeah, he dug all types of music. He dug everything -Motown, James Brown, Beatles, Ahmad Jamal, Miles Davis.

VR: So it sounds like you have a lot of musical influences through the environment that you grew up in. Do you have an y non musical influences?

SW: That is a good question. When I was growing up, it was music and sports. Everybody in my neighborhood played music or sports. We had garage bands when I was 12 or 13 years old that would rehearse every Saturday. We would learn all of the R&B and funk tunes. We were turned on to people like Earth, Wind & Fire, Kool & The Gang and we were playing school dances. When we were not doing that, we were out playing basketball and football. So that was basically it at that time.

VR: Sound like a good American upbringing.

SW: Yeah. it was actually pretty healthy at the time. During the Summer, we were playing all day and listening to music. And they you waited for the sun to go down and then you go play basketball.

VR: What was your first big breakthrough as a musician?

SW: I would probably have to say it was during the early 1980s when I was still living in Virginia. A friend of mine Jay was a drummer there, and would bring in artists from New York. He would call me to play with them to help form a quartet. We were playing a couple of local clubs there. What probably got me to New York was joining the band Out Of The Blue which was kind of a young lions group in the mid 1980s that recorded for Blue Note. Kenny Garrett had just left the band to play with Art Blakely and I filled in. Subsequently, I went to New York in 1987 after joining in Out Of The Blue.

VR: I have heard you on Leon Parker’s amazing percussion album, Awakening. Was the album equally spiritual to record as it is to listen to?

BK: Leon and I have always had a great working relationship. We haven’t done anything in the last year because of respective schedules. In the last three for four years, we have worked together a lot with different groups. The first time we worked together as a duo. That has been a very spiritual experience because we have a lot of trust. It is kind of operative that we work on when we playing together because we are so free to go out and totally improvise without any preconceived notions or tunes. We seem to come up with form. There is a lot of trust between us. We feel we have a real simpatico. Awakenings is basically a continuation of that. He gave me a lot of space to create.

BK: Your new album, Generations, seems to have a nostalgic tone to it. Through the actual name of the album and the individuals that you invited to play, were you trying to be nostalgic?

SW: Not really nostalgia. It is more of an acknowledgement to the musicians who have laid a path for this generation of musicians. The one reason why I chose this particular group of musicians is that even though they have a legacy of music, they are still looking forward. They are not looking back at what they did, they are still moving forward musically. That is the kind of spirit that I wanted to capture by using that group.

BK: How does this album compare to previous albums?

SW: the difference was with logistics. We had two days to record this album so the process was a little easier. This is the first time that is had a chance to use a group with musicians from a previous generation. All of my other records used guys from my immediate peer group, which is think is just as important. Because those were people I had a really simpatico with at the time. I have always had hopes and dreams to record with musicians who I have always admired and felt some musical connection with.

BK: You have played with so many people - different albums, different tours, different jams. Is it difficult to go to from one band to another?

SW: Not really. Even though most of my time now will be taken up with Corea’s group, I enjoy it. It keeps me fresh. It keeps me learning new ideas. It gives me the chance to learn about being a sideman and about being a bandleader. So I really enjoy it, because it is that much more music to check out and become part of my own concept. It makes me a more complete musician.

BK: You have been described as an "in demand" musician. Do you find that demanding?

SW: Yes and No. Yes, it is demanding on your time. In terms of being demanding one ones musicianship, it is an opportunity to learn new music. I don’t think of myself as an artist in demand, I just think of myself as somebody who is trying to be in music. This is what we all do.

BK: Between the variety of instruments that you play - the flute, clarinet, saxophone; is it difficult to go from one instrument to the other?

SW: Yeah. That is something that I am still working on particularly between the flute and the clarinet. Those are instruments that I have come to much later and I am trying to develop techniques.

BK: Similarly, is it difficult to go from one jazz style to another?

SW: No, not really. I always been open minded musically. I like to go in different directions to keep it fresh. It keeps me in tune to new ideas and concepts.

BK: You teach saxophone and ensemble at William Patterson College. Was proper education important in your own personal development?

SW: Definitely. You have to learn the basics of your instrument. It is like sports: if you don’t have the fundamentals, you don’t get very far. Natural talent will only carry you so far.

You can find the great saxophone playing on any number of albums. For starters, check out his own album Generations as well as Dave Holland’s Point of View.