Sarah Wilson - Trapeze Project (2010)


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By Pico

“Different and original," “Blur(s) stylistic boundaries," “developed a new music all her own" are phrases that have been used to describe the music of San Francisco Bay area trumpeter and singer Sarah Wilson. Those are just the phrases that popped in my mind as soon as I popped Trapeze Project into the CD player for the first time. These adjectives didn't come about by happenstance nor do they come from a forced learning; this style sprung as a matter of course from Wilson's own personal experiences and professional life.

California native Sarah Wilson picked up an anthropology degree from Berkeley, but found her true calling from, yes, a giant puppet troupe from Vermont where she soon began arranging, conducting and performing the music for it. Later, she sharpened her dormant trumpet acumen by studying with John McNeil and Laurie Frink. She also became musical director of an annual puppet program where she began to compose without any formal training in it (which she got eventually). Wilson later immersed herself in the vibrant new music scene of 1990's New York, where her budding eclecticism fit right in. There, she was able to work with musicians like Kenny Wolleson, Tony Scherr and Peck Allmond. Eventually, Wilson began composing for herself, initially as an outlet for dealing with her mother's death. The singing followed, although Wilson remains primarily an instrumentalist.

Returning back to California in 2005, Wilson released her first album Music For An Imaginary Play the following year, to much acclaim in the Bay Area. On September 28, her followup Trapeze Project goes on sale.

Trapeze Project reflects Wilson's many influences and experiences, distilled into her own unique, slightly quirky but embracing style. It's a lighter, more accessible Henry Threadgill, without sacrificing artistry. Her compositions, consisting of ten of the twelve songs present on this album, are all rhythmic based and rhythmic driven. From these complex but subtle rhythms, she builds counteracting harmonies around them. The band she uses to bring these melodies to life play her sometimes complex arrangements with unforced ease: Myra Melford on piano, Ben Goldberg on clarinet, Jerome Harris on bass and Scott Amendola on drums. Wilson's trumpet, unpretentious and somewhat dry, has a fragile, idiosyncratic character of its own. It really sounds like no one else I can think of.

Since the music starts with the rhythms, paying attention to what Amendola does is key to appreciating Wilson's unique weave of styles. He knows how to use all the percussion pieces at his disposal to maintain nuanced beats, while simultaneously complementing Melford in painting the tonal background against which the horn players play their counter-melodies and harmonies. You hear that going on prominently on festive numbers like “Blessing," “At Zebulon" and “Underneath The Soil," as well as the Big Easy blues of “To New Orleans," where the trumpet, clarinet and piano combine to perfectly capture the spirit of the French Quarter. But even on mellower cuts like “She Stands In A Room," the formula works: here, Amendola builds somber, shuffling forms that set the tone for entire song, allowing Wilson to focus on “singing" her lines on the trumpet, and Goldberg to harmonize along.

Goldberg, for his part, serves to infuse Balkan and klezmer forms into the music, and a knowing nod to other styles as called for. Harris plays electric bass, but in a higher-register, lyrical style pioneered by Steve Swallow. On the wild, rambunctious “In Resonance Light Takes Place," Harris holds everything together. His bass lines on “Underneath The Soil" propel the tune into a rolling, danceable jam, interfacing thoroughly with Amendola. Melford, whose “less is more" approach has worked well to keep Wilson's multi-faceted arrangements come off clean, gets a chance to show off her avant-garde side on her solo in “Possibility," as does Harris. Even during these infrequent excursions to the outside, it still somehow feels like a Wilson song.

Wilson sings lyrics on 3 of the selections, and at a casual listen, they appear to be simpler, folkier tunes, but her abilities to make sophisticated charts lean and uncluttered makes it only seem that way. The best example is her cover of the Joy Division song “Love Will Tear Us Apart." Like the other two vocal cuts “Melancholy For Place" and “From The River," she puts the trumpet aside and sings in an airy, innocent manner with little vibrato, much like she plays her trumpet. The sparse arrangement has Melford playing not at all while Wilson sings, and playing little elsewhere. Harris is handling timekeeping, while Amendola hangs way back and provide percussion shapes, and Goldberg's clarinet flutters around Wilson's voice.

Sarah Wilson's music reside in a unique spot somewhere between jazz and non-jazz, and it's a place she clearly relishes being in. “I actually like being in this in-between space where I can do whatever I want," she confides. As a listener, Trapeze Project is a nice, out of the way place to go to for both adventure and relaxation.

Trapeze Project is being distributed by Brass Tonic Records. Visit Wilson's website here.

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