Arranging Ellington: Interview with Anthony Wilson

Dear Arranging Ellington participants: it's now Deadline Day (December 15)! That means you have until the end of today to submit your arrangement. Make sure you get it in under the wire!


It's also time for another interview. Today's interviewee is Anthony Wilson.


Los Angeles-based guitarist and composer Anthony Wilson has recorded ten solo albums since his Grammy-nominated debut album was released in 1997. He has received numerous commissions for small- and large-scale original works, and his orchestral composition “Virgo” was commissioned by the LA Philharmonic Association and premiered at the Hollywood Bowl in 2008. He has been a member of Diana Krall’s quartet since 2001, and has recorded and performed with Paul McCartney, Leon Russell, Willie Nelson, Mose Allison, Bobby Hutcherson, Barbra Streisand, Madeleine Peyroux, Aaron Neville, and with the Brazilian guitarist Chico Pinheiro. His father is bandleader, composer, arranger, and trumpeter Gerald Wilson, who in addition to leading his own influential West Coast big band, was also for a time a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra and contributed several arrangements to the band's repertoire.




DJA: One thing I've tried to do throughout this Arranging Ellington project is to give a bit of context for the participants, and encourage them to think more broadly and deeply about Duke Ellington's world, his music, his contributions, and so on.


AW: Well, Ellington is such a huge figure that… often people don't really get involved with the music, especially when they're at a younger age. I mean, I didn't! It took me a little time. And then once I got into it, I was like, oh my god, this is such real music, there's so much there that you can bring back into your own practice as a writer, as an improviser, as someone working with large ensembles — but there's so much there that I think it's maybe a little bit daunting for people. So they don't even get into it!


DJA: Do you remember what it was that first caught your ear and made you want to investigate Ellington's music further?


AW: So I'm now forty-five years old. When I was in my teens, which is when I really first started wanting to learn to play jazz, my high school big band didn't play anything by Ellington at all! It was all these cookie-cutter arrangements, things that came from a completely different aesthetic. So even though my father would talk about Ellington, and I was aware of the sound of the band, and also the things my dad had written for him… I mean, I had some awareness, but it didn't really seep down.


And then I went to Bennington College, in Vermont, and my main teacher there was [trumpeter and composer] Bill Dixon. And Bill was really into Duke Ellington — super, super, super into Duke Ellington. So he started to expose me to things from the late thirties and early forties, especially the band with Jimmie Blanton and Ben Webster. And that really caught me, you know, "Ko-Ko" and "Cotton Tail"… and "Come Sunday," of course from Black, Brown, and Beige.


The thing that I loved about the music, immediately, was — and I think partly because Bill Dixon was also so involved in the world of integrating improvisation with written material — the thing that caught me was that it seemed like the improvisation was woven so beautifully into the music. So you could have these very short statements from an improviser, or statements that were improvised within the music that happened at times when you wouldn't normally expect them. I was so used to hearing an exposition, and then a solo, and then a repeat of the exposition. This music was different, and it excited me, because I wanted to write songs where there would be different opportunities for improvisation. It was just so seamless, the world of improvisation and writing — the one always informed the other, and back again, in this really great loop.


That was also about the time that Wynton Marsalis was starting to get hugely into Ellington. And I really liked Wynton's music at that time, a lot — especially through high school, you know, coming into college? So when he started talking about Ellington, there was enough support for me to say, wow, I want to really start listening to as much of this music as possible! So then I started listening to more works, later works. The things that got to me about the band and the sound was like the weight of the band, kinda the… it just had a different weight to it! A different kind of sound. And the way that they used amazing grooves, you know, especially in the later work, grooves that I could really relate to as somebody who was raised on rock and roll. There were just amazing things that they did with beats and grooves! So many things about it, at that time, around the age of nineteen, started to pop out, and the music became really important to me.


DJA: You touched on some of the people I wanted to ask you about! You mentioned Bill Dixon, and I think you also studied with [drummer] Milford Graves at Bennington?


AW: Yeah.


DJA: So from these lions of the avant-garde like Bill Dixon and Milford Graves, to a neo-traditionalist like Wynton Marsalis, to even a lot of people in the pop or rock worlds, who might not know a lot about jazz but often still have some relationship to Ellington's stuff — it's almost like Duke's music is like this universal acid…


AW: Totally!


DJA: Like, regardless of where people are situated on the musical spectrum, it seems like there's always some element of the Ellington sound that they relate to.


AW: Sure. Well, one person I've talked a lot about Ellington with is the songwriter and producer Joe Henry. He is really inspired by the world of Ellington, the world of Strayhorn, their collaboration. I think it's a kind of music that… I think that was one thing that was so surprising to me, that when I didn't know the music, I thought of it as something completely different than what it turned out to be! That was a big surprise and adventure for me. It was like, oh my god, here's this composer who has this band through several eras of American music, and he kept developing and modernizing the sound, but it was always so rugged and rough and intense, and personality-based. I think that's something that can really speak to people who love music that is so much full of personality, so much full of character. 


I think for somebody like Joe Henry, he realizes Ellington is so involved with song, with real expression, with bringing the best out of the players that he's using, getting the most grain and intense flavor from each piece, you know? Going deeply into each composition. Rather than being, "Okay, this is my next tune," you know? And there's so much of that mentality in jazz: "Here's my next tune, here's the next tune…."


Something in the world of Ellington — it's not like the songs are more important than that. It's just like there's some sense of more… inquiry, more digging with each piece. Duke had so much of that mentality that it can speak to songwriters, or to people who are really interested in texture, color… the infinite variety of colors that seem to happen within the same ensemble, it's kind of unbelievable.


Since Joe Henry is a songwriter, I think he loves the real song identity of a lot of the music. Which I like too, because they're not just vehicles for improvisation, or vehicles for the arranger to show off. They're much more about narrative, much more about storytelling, much more about creating a world in each piece. But you're exactly right, it's like a universal acid!


DJA: You've recorded a number of Ellington compositions — hits like "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me," but also deep cuts like "Carnegie Blues" and "Zweet Zurzday." What's your relationship to that material and how did you approach adapting that for your own groups?


AW: I play a lot of Ellington songs actually, on almost any gig! "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me" was just a song that I liked, but there was a particular version that Ellington had [on The Great Paris Concert] that had this beautiful counterline.


One thing about Ellington's music that blows me away is that you can have a great, great, great song like "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me," and then you can have these other elements put into the arrangement that to me became so connected with the song. So where I've heard a million people sing "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me" over the years, it wasn't until I heard this version with this little sinuous counterline that the song started to take on a new life for me, so when I recorded that particular song with my nine-piece band, I wanted to honor that element. So in my version, I used the same line, with clarinet and bass clarinet.


It's like this one other little part of the song that seems to give it dimension, and those are the little things that when I get to play Ellington music that I like to work with.


You know, a song like [Strayhorn's] "Isfahan," one of the things that annoys me when I play it with a lot of musicians is that they play "Isfahan" so fast! And "Isfahan" to me is this piece that, like, if you remove the tempo from it, you remove a lot of… there's just something so important about the little breaks between the sections, that they have no meaning if you're playing it at, you know, at just a nice medium swinging tempo. It's just gone, all of the storytelling in the song is now gone, and there's now just a bunch of II-V's! And it's weird to me! So those are the things that if I work with Ellington's music, I'm excited to try to preserve, little things like that: a tempo, or a feeling that seems to give the song a little added dimension, something that's out of the ordinary. Because that seemed to be a talent that he had that other people didn't have.


Like on "Carnegie Blues," which I recorded, I just love that song because it's got that beautiful major 7th in the melody, and then it settles down into an altered dominant seventh.


That's so beautiful in the blues, you know, to play with that dichotomy of the two sounds. So when we played it, we tried to play that up, just that one little thing.


For me, it can be a really simple relationship to a groove, or a tempo that really inspires me, or some kind of line, and — without trying to do the same arrangement — use more than just the song. If a student is listening to, you know, even something like… and we're talking Strayhorn now, but if they're listening to "Take the 'A' Train" — if somebody said, "We need you to write an arrangement of 'Take the "A" Train'" and you go, "Oh god…" you know? But there's so much information contained in the way Strayhorn dealt with his own song, I think it can help liberate a stuck mind who's like, "Oh my god, how am I going to deal with this really famous song?"


And then, like you said, there are the deep cuts. Some of the songs that are sort of obscure blow my mind. I was at the Port Townsend Jazz Festival this past summer, and [vibraphonist] Stefon Harris was one of the faculty members, and he was working with one of the ensembles there on "Thanks for the Beautiful Land on the Delta," from the New Orleans Suite. That was just so great to hear young musicians working that piece. Because, first of all, it's just got that crazy, crazy groove that they can easily relate to — a drummer nowadays can sink his teeth into that. And then there's incredible voicings in it. And there's some room to take it someplace else in terms of improvising, maybe in terms of form, but using the real basic elements of the piece. For me, that's the key to relating to it. Just finding these really strong pieces that have identity, and preserving that identity while still having your own chance to improvise — you don't have to feel confined by style, or anything, but there's enough in the music that's informative for you to then use it as a springboard.


DJA: It's actually somewhat unusual to find a guitarist who is so influenced by Ellington. Maybe because you could usually barely hear Fred Guy on most of those early records, and then when he left in '49, Duke stopped using guitar in his band! So I'm curious, as an instrumentalist, whether there are any elements of Duke's pianism that have made their way into the way you play guitar?


AW: Guitar is a tough instrument in a lot of ways, because unless you're somebody like Tal Farlow who had huge, huge hands, you can't really span a large number of registers in a very facile way. So I would say the percussiveness, and the use of registers, and the startling sonorities that Duke has in his piano playing are very, very difficult to approximate on the guitar. Things that I like are comping with different kinds of intervals, or different kinds of touch, or an unusual voicing… if it's possible! But personally, I'd say it's been more his writing that inspired me to look for unusual or surprising things on the guitar. The way that he voiced things, the kind of sonorities that he used, the juxtapositions between different instruments that created different sounds or timbres — that was really stimulating to my imagination. Both as somebody who wanted to write for ensembles, and as a guitar player. It's just, on the guitar, it's hard to find a lot of this stuff! You've got these six strings, and clusters are difficult, a stack of clusters is even harder… I look for them on the guitar, but I think I look for them more in my writing.


But I love the economy in the way Duke Ellington comps. And I try to bring that into my comping, you know? Just how he supports another musician… some sense of space, some sense that you don't have to fill it up with chords. This whole thing about, like, chords, you know? Especially guitarists, we're just stuck with this thing.


Like, most people learn, when they start learning guitar, they learn, okay, here's your A chord, here's your E chord, here's your D chord… and then you start to get a little more advanced, so now you want to learn jazz chords. But most people still just teach you, just like, actual voicings, and then they say this is this chord. And so so many guitar players are stuck in this land of not being able to visualize the guitar as an open form.


So for me, somebody like Ellington really opens up the guitar. Because you realize, man, my C major could be played on the very lowest strings, and I can play a G, a C, and an open D string, and that can be my chord! And I'll show that to a guitar player, and they'll go "Really? You play chords on just the bottom three strings… a lot?" And I say, "Yeah!" 'Cause when those overtones hit each other, they all hit sort of of "BWAHH!" And it has a different ring than when you play a C major seventh chord on your middle four strings, in the middle of the guitar, where everything just sort of goes "pwing…" and it chimes out and we've heard it a million times. So somebody like Duke Ellington embodies the spirit of looking for distinctive sounds, and that is really important to me as a player.


DJA: You've touched on this already, but do you have any thoughts about what the most important, enduring aspect of the Ellington legacy is for contemporary musicians?


AW: Wow. Well, for me, personally, as a contemporary musician, as somebody who's out here performing, working as a composer, as a player, the big thing with Ellington is… it has to do with really being yourself in music. There's a lot of talk about "finding your voice, creating your voice" and I think Ellington's work and Strayhorn's work really embodies that. There's a great deal of musical knowledge there, in what they did, but there's something much more: there's honoring your own personal history with music, there's your relationship with the musicians that you're close to, and learning what they sound like, and how to give their voices context… there's a great deal of information there about working in ensembles, and what can happen if your mentality as a musician is to really find the voice of your ensemble. Much moreso than just letting all the musicians in the group go, letting them improvise… it's a different thing. Ellington shows how you can control music and let music go at the same time, in a really beautiful, balanced way!


If you're a composer and you're writing tunes, you're writing songs, you're writing pieces, whatever — you're trying to figure out how to get the improvisation to carry forth the message of what you're trying to write. And if you don't do that well… well you just have a bunch of solos, and they don't frame the piece the way you want to, and the piece doesn't frame the improvisation, and you just have sort of run-of-the-mill music.


The quality of Ellington that I find so amazing is how he made these extraordinary pieces that were so beautifully framed, with sometimes very economical means to hold them together — a riff, or a groove, or just textures, or incredible, incredible melody and knowing exactly who in the ensemble to use to tell that story. I like this idea of knowing what he really needed to control, and knowing what he could let go.


There's just a great human sense about the music, which in an era of very schooled musicians… sometimes, super schooled musicians can forget these basic, human things. About the sense of grounding your music in a really good groove, or setting up a great, great riff, or letting somebody play 27 choruses, 'cause that's the time, you know? There's all these musical, human instincts that Duke brought in to what he was doing that make the music so powerful. It's less about Ellington's masterpieces, or revering him as a repository of repertoire or something… it's really about what qualities his music has that's dynamic and living for musicians that are working now.

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