Jazz Album Review: Sarah Wilson’s “Kaleidoscope” – Unrelievedly Upbeat



By Michael Ullman

On this record, the trumpeter, singer and songwriter Sarah Wilson offers warm music, a little funny at times, and very well played in a modest way.

Sarah Wilson, Kaleidoscope (Brass Tonic Records)

Before trumpeter, singer and songwriter, Sarah Wilson was a jazz musician, she was a puppeteer. How this happened is fascinating. According to her website, Wilson was an anthropology student at Berkeley who was interested in theater – not so much in playing the trumpet. She met a member of the venerable Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont and traveled across the continent to work for one of the company’s shows, which often features giant puppets. Eventually, she wrote and conducted music for their shows, and it rekindled playing the trumpet. In 1993, she moved to New York City to focus on music, but her background in puppetry followed her. Wilson became the musical director of Lincoln Center’s annual puppet program. At the same time, she studied with trumpeters such as John McNeil and Laurie Frink.

Frink and McNeil co-authored a trumpet method book titled Flexus: the calisthenics of the trumpet for the modern improviser. On his new album, Kaleidoscope, Wilson dedicates “The Hit” to John McNeil and Afro-Latin Go to Laurie Frink, but I don’t hear any exorbitant athleticism in her trumpet playing. It is given in magnificent long tones on its open horn; his compositions are sometimes gently repetitive, in a folk way, his music is warm, a little funny at times, and played very well in a modest way. Her songs, which she sings simply and clearly with only a hint of vibrato, are overwhelmingly optimistic. She explains that her music is linked to “avant pop, Afro-Latin grooves and indie rock” as well as post-bop jazz. I wonder if puppet show music might have an influence as well. His sextet has unusual instrumentation, but with a rhythm section of Myra Melford, piano, Jerome Harris on bass and Matt Wilson on drums, it couldn’t be better. The other members are violinist Charles Burnham and guitarist John Schott.

Kaleidoscope the first piece begins with a solo trumpet choir, a kind of gentle fanfare in which Wilson utters the melody. When she goes around in circles to the tune of “Aspiration” we hear her accompanists: Matt Wilson, I believe, is playing something like bells, and he’s joined by darting and barely audible runs from Schott. Finally, bass and piano enter with more emphasis. Wilson gives up and invites the group to improvise collectively, which they do without ever losing the simple melody. Dedicated to Carla Bley, the cheerful “Presence” follows. It’s a lively song: it could be a kind of carnival music. This time, violinist Burnham is the first soloist.

All the pieces except one are composed by Wilson. The exception is the song “Lullaby and Exile” by Matthew Ward. It’s easy to see why she chose him. The lyrics correspond exactly to his positive point of view and the melody, first chosen by the violinist, is a folk delight. The lyrics are equally cheerful: “A trance is a spell with a thrill wrapped inside / And try as best you can to fight it / Love will eventually get you.” One of the most beautiful pieces of the lineup is “Young Woman, ” dedicated to the record’s pianist, Myra Melford, who also opens the song. The lyrics find the singer “deeply lost”, stumbling in the midst of fear and doubt. The inevitable change occurs once she hears music, presumably Melford’s. “Later that night I heard you on stage in an amber light… your music warmed my cold soul.” I felt at ease. Maybe one day I’ll fill the room with my own melody.

Dedicated to John McNeil, “The Hit” begins with Wilson, whose intelligent and spirited drums are always a joy. The melody is a series of long tones played against Wilson’s chatty background. “With Grace” is a beautiful ballad-hymn introduced on the guitar. The recording ends with a calypso uptempo number, “Go. ” Its second section includes a bass line interrupted by the main instruments, which repeatedly play an ascending three-note figure – as if offering some kind of contradiction. It’s a fun conversation and an utterly whimsical ending to a session filled with charming, unpretentious melodies and performances. After listening to this record several times, I feel I can assure Wilson that, like Melford, she can fill rooms with melodies of her own.

Michael ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, University of Chicago and University of Michigan, from which he earned a doctorate in English. Author or co-author of two books on jazz, he wrote on jazz and classical music for the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, High fidelity, Stereophile, Boston phoenix, Boston Globe, and other places. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling and others have appeared in academic journals. For more than 20 years, he has written a bimonthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also criticizes classical music. At Tufts University he mainly teaches modernist writers in the English department and the history of jazz and blues in the music department. He plays the piano poorly.


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