TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Brooklyn drummer Matt Wilson keeps busy with many bands and projects - other people's, and his own. Two new Wilson albums find him as part of a co-op, all-star trio, and at the helm of one of his own quartets. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says part of Wilson's appeal is he keeps things light, in a good way.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON KNOTTS")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Matt Wilson's tune "Don Knotts," from "The Guest House," by Trio M. It figures Wilson digs a great physical comedian like Knotts; he's funny himself, and drummers also know about offhand dexterity and split-second timing. The occasional collective Trio M teams Wilson with two players who are serious in the best sense: pianist Myra Melford and Mark Dresser, who gets a massive sound from the bass violin. His plucked notes can thunder and quiver at the same time.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WHITEHEAD: Myra Melford picked up percussive strategies from Chicago blues pianists and from free jazz, and a way of developing phrases informed by her studies of North Indian music. Her best improvisations have pinpoint economy - PowerPoint piano. The dash of levity drummer Matt Wilson adds is just the leavening the trio needs. This is from Mark Dresser's Zimbabwean Calypso "Ekonini."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EKONINI")
WHITEHEAD: The push and pull of Trio M creates a good setting for each of these players. Drummer Matt Wilson's light touch is even more pronounced on his other new album, with his quartet Arts & Crafts, called "An Attitude for Gratitude." Its excellence is partly due to the players - bassist Martin Wind, gorgeous-sounding trumpeter Terell Stafford and the droll pianist and organist Gary Versace.
The other reason the album's so good is Wilson's knack for writing spry tunes, and for picking ones by other composers that inspire his players, like John Scofield's mambo, "You Bet."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU BET")
WHITEHEAD: Terell Stafford on trumpet. That's brilliant playing but a little manic, which gets to the heart of this quartet's appeal. The players all get on Matt Wilson's slightly warped wavelength - not that he can't be serious himself. His drums can steer the band or melt into the background, with a rustle of wire brushes on snare drum. You can hear that side of Wilson's playing on the 1929 anthem "Happy Days Are Here Again," in a downbeat version patterned on Barbra Streisand's.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN")
WHITEHEAD: That performance is a sly joke, if you recognize the song - a teary version of a cheery tune. There are other odd strokes on Wilson's new album with Arts & Crafts. A witty take on Nat Adderly's "Little Boy with the Sad Eyes" starts like we're in a somber church, but then a party breaks out in the organ loft.
To offset that, there's a lovely trio version of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" played totally straight. Laughs are great, but as I'm often reminded around the house, not all the time.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER")
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist of emusic.com and the author of the book "Why Jazz?" He reviewed the "Guest House" by Matt Wilson and the Trio M and "Attitude for Gratitude" by Matt Wilson's Arts and Crafts quartet. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org. And you can find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair. I'm Terry Gross.