By: David Schultz
Nights of improvisational music require a higher level of trust from the audience than your average performance. It’s near impossible to anticipate what you’re going to hear but you can guarantee that it will be unrehearsed since it’s inherent to the concept. For these evenings you put your faith in the musicians and rely on their instincts. In the case of the Willie Waldman Project, you can consider yourselves in good hands. The Hollywood based trumpeter can not only bring the heat in his own right, he can assemble a fine group of musicians around him. For his gig this past Wednesday night at New York City’s Jazz Standard, Waldman compiled an exemplary cast of musicians that included jam scene heavyweights Steve Molitz (Particle, Phil Lesh & Friends) and Vinnie Amico (moe.).
Outside of his jazzy solo work, the California based trumpeter is probably best known for his work with Jane’s Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins in Banyan, a band that also features Wilco’s Nels Cline and Minutemen bassist Mike Watt. He’s also proved to be a diverse session musician with his trumpet appearing on recordings by Perry Farrell, Rob Wasserman and Tupac Shakur. Oh yes, you may also recognize him from Vonda Shepherd’s band on Ally McBeal.
With Waldman, Molitz, Amico and Gent Treadly bassist Greg Koerner (as well as a guitarist whose name I unfortunately never got) acting as the core band, the Project received assists through both sets from keyboardist Pat Daugherty (New York Electric Piano) and clarinetist Dave Aron (producer/sound engineer for Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg) amongst others. On his off-night from Phil Lesh & Friends’ ten show residency at the Nokia Theater, Molitz turned in his usual bank of electric keyboards and worked primarily with the house’s grand piano, Hammond B3 and a portable electric keyboard. Amico was the anchor of the night. With the exception of one solo, moe.'s exceptional drummer kept everything focused and centered.
For the most part, Waldman and company avoided improvisational pitfalls like directionless jamming or overly cluttered tunes with everyone fighting for space. At the outset, things were tentative as they battled through some improvisational jazz and fusion, alternating solos while everyone worked their own variation on a riff or two. It was interesting but not overly intriguing. Once the feeling out process was complete, the night really started cooking, especially in the second set, when everyone started playing together, freely and loosely. By the second set, everyone was picking their spots, working in unison and creating those moments that make free associative shows so exciting.
Waldman proved to be a charismatic ringleader. As the band picked up steam, so did Waldman’s excitement level. The night’s most inspired bit followed one of Waldman’s references to the East coast/West coast nature of his band. Shortly into the ensuing jam, Molitz threw out the riff to Shakur’s “California Love” causing Waldman’s eyes to light up and the song progressed with an enthusiastic lunacy that had people dancing at the back of the jazz hall. At the very end, the talented trumpeter and Daugherty summed the night up in one funky phrase: “There ain’t no party like a Willie Waldman party!”