For many years, Steve Wilson has made a living as a "first-call" alto and soprano saxophonist. That is, he's a first-choice musician for tons of acclaimed bandleaders: Christian McBride, Maria Schneider, Dave Holland, Mulgrew Miller, Chick Corea, Buster Williams and so forth. He spent much of last year with the 70th-anniversary Blue Note Records band, and even took a few gigs with classical-music ensembles presenting works for strings and saxophone.
Of course, being called so often leaves little time to call others for your own projects. That was thankfully untrue when Wilson played a week at New York's Village Vanguard with his newest quartet, itself composed of first-call musicians. NPR Music and WBGO presented and archived a live video webcast and on-air broadcast of Wilsonian's Grain live from the Village Vanguard during the group's Wednesday night early set.
It's hard to describe Steve Wilson's style; he's made his career on being a complete musician, technically and imaginatively. (In order to fit into so many bands, he plays alto sax, soprano sax, multiple flutes and a clarinet.) More accurate would be to say that he's a musician of honesty within the vast field of mainstream post-bop, but never constrained by its parameters. With him were a group of old friends who are also on many a musician's speed-dial: pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Bill Stewart.
In a set alternately swung hard and delicately shaped, Wilson called a generous helping of standards. None of them strayed far from the melody, but all of them were tastefully put. Of the originals his group played, bassist Okegwo contributed the highlight, with a beautiful slow chart called "For You."
Wilson arrived in New York in 1987; the next year, he was already on the road with Lionel Hampton. The city's top musicians quickly learned of his talents, and he now appears on more than 100 commercial recordings. Since 1991, he's also found time to record seven albums of his own. Wilsonian's Grain remains undocumented on disc, though not on tape; in addition to this live recording, its October 2008 debut gig was recorded for air on NPR's JazzSet with Dee Dee Bridgewater.
It had been less than a year since Wilson last led a group at the Village Vanguard: an entirely different quartet co-led by pianist Michael Wolff, Chip Jackson and Victor Lewis. He also visited the club with Christian McBride's Inside Straight last fall — NPR Music and WBGO recorded that show, as well. In other words, he's no stranger to the place, no matter who calls whom for the gig.
- "All The Things You Are" (Kern)
- "Input" (Wilson)
- "For You" (Okegwo)
- "Chelsea Bridge" (Strayhorn)
- "Strike Up The Band" (Gershwin)
- "Q-B-Rab" [Theme] (Wilson)
- Steve Wilson, alto and soprano saxophones
- Orrin Evans, piano
- Ugonna Okegwo, bass
- Bill Stewart, drums
- Josh Jackson, producer and host
- David Tallacksen, mix engineer
- Josh Webb, recording assistant