Matt Wilson Talks About Making Spirits Bright, On the Eve of a Tour with His Christmas Tree-O

Dec 11, 2017

Jazz has generated more than its share of holiday staples throughout the years, from Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas to the Vince Guaraldi Trio finessing “Christmas Time is Here.” One sturdy recent addition to the canon has been Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O, by a smart, scrappy unit consisting of Jeff Lederer on reeds, Paul Sikivie on bass and Wilson on drums.

Released on Palmetto in 2010, Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O contains an idiosyncratic mix of traditional carols (“O Come O Come Emmanuel”), plummy holiday standards (“I’ll Be Home For Christmas”), rock anthems (“Happy Xmas (War is Over)”) and pop-culture curios (“The Chipmunk Song”). Whatever the material, the band applies a Wilsonian doctrine of serious fun, forever merry and bright.

Wilson has also made the Christmas Tree-O into a perennial workhorse, taking the project on the road every year around this time. His current tour kicks off on Wednesday in his native Midwest: the band will play several gigs in Iowa, followed by a weekend run at the Green Mill in Chicago. Then come dates at Quinn’s in Beacon, New York (Dec. 18) and the Jazz Standard in Manhattan (Dec. 19 and 20), before a final stop at the Jazz Loft in Stony Brook, on Long Island (Dec. 22).

So while every member of the band stays busy with other projects — Wilson’s highly acclaimed recent album, Honey and Salt, brings new melody to the poetry of Carl Sandburg — the Christmas Tree-O has established a special rapport. “It’s such a swinging band,” Wilson said with unabashed pride when I reached him by phone last week. He spoke from Ithaca, New York, where he was finishing up a residency. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

My recollection is that Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O met with immediate enthusiasm when it was released in 2010. Was that actually the case?

It got a really good response, right off the bat. I think people were waiting for something that was a little bit different. Some people say it’s not Christmas until they put that album on, which is nice to hear. And you know, we went in and did it really quickly. We brought a tree that day, and all wore sweaters. It was May. [laughs] But it’s been a really welcoming way for us socially to move around, and have guests with us, wherever we’ve been. I put together a list the other day of all the people who have guested with us: Bill Frisell and Jason Moran, Christian McBride and Kurt Elling, Bobby Sanabria, Esperanza Spalding, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Duchess. We invite people to come up wherever we go. I like when we can go to a town and welcome the local community to be a part of it.

With all of these cameos, what is the most memorable thing that’s happened?

Matt Wilson helps Amy Schumer with her match grip, Jazz at the Bistro, 2015
Credit Courtesy of Matt Wilson

Well, Amy Schumer and her crew joining us was pretty wild. We were in St. Louis, and I noticed that Mike Pride was playing with Jason Stein, opening up for her. So during our second set at Jazz at the Bistro, I notice they’re up above in the balcony, really digging it. Then afterwards, we go up and meet with them. This was after most people left, but some people stayed. Amy sat in and played the drums. So we made the local news – she played some big arena, and when they reviewed her, they mentioned that afterward she sat in with Mat Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O.

I remember following that whole story on social media.

Yeah, we showed up in Amy’s Twitter feed. So that was fun. She actually grew up a few blocks from where we live now, on Long Island. She went to the same dance studio that my daughter, Audrey, went to years later. So I sent a picture of me and Amy Schumer to my daughter, and she said: “Dad, I know you’ve met presidents, but this is a really big deal.” [laughs] But Amy – she was very appreciative of the music.

What else stands out from all the years of special guests?

The first year that Elling did “The 12 Days of Christmas,” that was wild. Esperanza showing up was pretty deep. And then when Jason Moran came out in a Santa suit, and wore the gloves and hat and beard, that was pretty wild; he even played piano with the gloves on.

Jason Moran, in full Santa regalia, with the Christmas Tree-O, 2015
Credit Courtesy of Matt Wilson

But all of the guests really have fallen right in, and it’s been a delight to have them there. I always say it’s like the old Andy Williams Christmas specials on ABC. “Look who’s at the door: it’s Kurt Elling!” I would love to bring an actual door, and the next guest knocks on the door and comes in: “Hey, how ya doing? I was just in the neighborhood, thought I’d drop by and play a tune.” [laughs]

Now, I have a theory about holiday songs. I feel like they represent our last remaining standards. Everything else in our culture is so fragmented, but no matter what, you know these tunes. Does that make sense to you?

Yes. It is sort of the last bastion of social music that a wide swath of the population knows. I think it always comes back to traditions or nostalgia. We all have imagery of what those songs mean to us. We can play them for whomever, and they go, “Oh, this is how you guys are doing this particular tune.” They know the songs. Whereas if you cover Radiohead or Neil Young, there’s an older generation that doesn’t know that music. Or if you play Jerome Kern or Irving Berlin, unless you’re part of the jazz or cabaret or show world, you’re not going to know those songs. So I agree, it’s a way for people to hear our interpretation of the ordinary.

And the Christmas Tree-O offers a fun, accessible illustration of that process.

What’s been really nice is to add things to the repertoire. We’ll probably workshop it, but we’re trying to figure out how to do the Mariah Carey tune that seems to have become iconic. (We’ll avoid the Paul McCartney one at all costs.) We do this Puerto Rican Christmas song sometimes. In Chicago last year, when we played the Green Mill, Big Al the doorman there is Polish. He goes: “Uh, I don’t hear any Polish songs.” So we found some, and played two of them the next night. He was standing in front of the band, and he had a couple of tears because he remembered these songs from when he was a kid. So we’ll do those when we’re there.

The featured guest at the Jazz Standard this year is guitarist Nels Cline. Is there anything that you’ll add to the book specifically for him?

Yeah, I think this Mariah tune. And then I was thinking about doing that Lindsey Buckingham song “Holiday Road.” Especially with guitar, I think it could work. We could go back and revisit some more traditional ones that are always fun to do, like “Silent Night” or “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Even if we play them downtempo and use them as segues, I think it would be really fun to hear how he paints on something like that. Simple things that are beautiful. I’m not quite sure. Usually when we get on the road is when we stir up a lot of new things.

Matt Wilson's Christmas Tree-O with Marshall Allen of the Sun Ra Arkestra
Credit Courtesy of Matt Wilson

The road seems key to this whole proposition. You’ve established a reliable, seasonal rhythm with these tours.

I love how loose it’s gotten over the years, and how swinging it is. As much fun as I do have with all the extra stuff, the musicianship is always at an incredibly high level. If we can have the films and the decorations and all that stuff on top of it, great. But in way, I think that group is not just a Christmas band. It’s really a great band of jazz. Again, we definitely have a window of when we can do it. Jeff and I were laughing the other day because when we did that longer tour a few years ago, we started on November 30, and it just wasn’t right. So the tour ideally starts in early December, and the farthest we’ll go is the 23rd. Somebody actually called us for Christmas Eve this year, and I was like, “No, I can’t do that.” [laughs] “We don’t need the work that much.”

For Matt Wilson's tour dates, visit his website. He'll present Honey and Salt on Jan. 13 at Jazz on the Mountain, WBGO's annual getaway at the Mohonk Mountain House. And stay tuned for his insights on a year-end episode of Jazz Night in America.