Sarah Wilson

Sarah Wilson

Sarah Wilson

Trapeze Project

Brass Tonic Records

There was a time when jazz had lost so much habitat that it was reduced to a few miserable preserves in forgotten corners of the music world. Some dedicated individual kept the species alive on college radio stations and in obscure clubs and while records were released, they quickly were devoured by stronger species. The vast savannah of television and movies and even stage musicals where jazz formerly lived were shorn down first by freebooting rockers, then colonized by vinyl-clad synth pop strip malls, and finally demoralized when hip hop escaped to spray paint suburban walls. But now, thanks to digital downloads and specialty web sites, jazz is returning to its former glory. Artists like Sarah Wilson freely improvise on trumpets and clarinets and remastered odd and unexpected tempos and keys, and create a moody weirdness that makes caffeinated hipsters grumble “Wow, man, that’s really DEEP.”

Performing on both coasts, Ms. Wilson avoids those square states in the middle of America. She not only writes her own material but has received major commissions, a real rarity for any artist today. Her strengths lie in brass and vocals and her skill in formal composition recalls the jazz giants of the ’40s and ’50s. On the mostly instrumental disc, her first vocals appear with “Melancholy for Place,” a sad, dreamy retrospective of what was once treasured and is now gone. She’s commandingly silent on “Himalaya,” but the melancholy remains on this commissioned piece. Its minor key and small busy notes are not so much about sadness but about finding something to do to cover up the emotion. Wilson slips a cover into this collection; Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” slows down and makes you feel like love has already torn her apart and left stuffing all over the living room floor. Maybe she can duct tape herself back together.

But not all is slow doom and death by de-friending. “Underneath the Soil” puts on a brave face with a prominent trumpet steering a polyrhythmic jungle beat through Birdland styled riffing, and “Possibility” heads out into the wilds where rhythm is afraid to tread and not even skinny Foster Grants and a PBR tall boy will help you find your way home. “From the River” shows that Ms. Wilson has perked up: “I get so high from the river down below” she claims, and now all is fine with her. Yes, she will survive, and with artists of her caliber composing and performing, I think jazz is about as healthy as a century-old style can be in the digital age.

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