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Saturday, March 7, 2009

Corey Wilkes -- Young AACM Trumpeter

I must say that listening to trumpeter Corey Wilkes' 2008 album "Drop It" was shocking: so far in his career he has been a tried and true avant-gardist, having recorded with AACM stalwarts The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Kahil El'Zabar, and Roscoe Mitchell, and with such English titans as Evan Parker.

"Drop It" uses a Fender Rhodes (played by Robert "Baabe" Irving") and an electric bass (Jeremy "Bean" Clemmons) to create a fairly slick, R & B sound on most cuts. For the most part, the album is a quite successful example of fusion jazz.

What accounts for the shift of focus by Wilkes?

Maybe there wasn't a shift. If we take a wider view of Wilkes' recordings as a sideman, we learn that he played on the wonderful neo-soul crooner Gordon Chambers' "Love Stories." In many ways Chambers' disc is a self-conscious updating of 70's work by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and many others. On "Stay Together," a song with an arrangement and insistent beat that is not dissimilar to what appears on some tunes on "Drop It," Wilkes plays some piercing horn lines that snap to the forefront during the chorus. Later, an understated solo behind the vocals displays Wilkes' tasteful and reserved side. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Wilkes' contribution to this fine tune is almost the equivalent of Chambers himself.

Other projects Wilkes has worked on have not been as obviously pop as the Chambers' recording. But they are far from the usual AACM fare. Shannon Harris' "New World Reveal-a-Solution" makes liberal use of electronics. "Unwrapped Vol. 4" uses turntables and a constant mumbling voice over.

I realize that musicians, as with all of us, need to make money, but Wilkes' choice to bring elements of these projects into his own leads me to think that Corey Wilkes is not just interested in the avant-garde acoustics of such AACM mainstays as The Art Ensemble and Kahlil El'Zabar.

He probably likes R&B-style fusion.

The album opens with Wilkes playing behind the recitation of a Langston Hughes poem, "Trumpet Player." The best songs, to my ears, are "Sonata in the Key of Jack Daniels," "Drop It," and "Funkier than a Mosquito's Tweezer" (the song made fairly famous by Ike and Tina).

At first "Sonata" sounds as if it could have come from a mid-70's "Weather Report" outing. The drummer keeps up a spry beat, the Fender Rhodes in many ways drives the song during ensemble parts, giving it flavor. Wilkes' solo plays against this upbeat mood. He seems underneath the rest of the music, almost subverting the lightness of the Fender. His solo sounds like it's in a minor key, while the song itself definitely feels major key. The resulting irony creates a fascinating tension and imbues that portion of the song with real texture and depth. Chelsea Baratz's sax solo is much more in keeping with the mood created by the other instruments.

"Drop It" is much more funky, and an opportunity for the bassist, Junius Paul, to drive the song. The opening solo is, I think, a trumpet run through a synthesizer. While funky electric numbers with an electronically modified trumpet suggests the sounds of early 70's Miles, this is none of the sort. Through that whole period there was a murkiness and unsettling depth to almost all of Miles' music. This song is definitely textured, but it has a lightness. Also noteworthy is the interplay of the front players, Baratz's sax and Wilkes. Appended to the end of the album is an equally appealing 10-minute live version of this song.

"Mosquito's Tweezer" is something else altogether. Dee Alexander's fine vocal does not leave me pining for Tina Turner, which is saying something. This Ailene Bullock song is one of the great tell offs of a man by a woman in the R & B genre, which is also saying something.

Wilkes is just the latest in a great line of AACM trumpeters: Wadada Leo Smith, Malachi Thompson, Lester Bowie, Ameen Muhammad, and Robert Griffin.

You can also hear Wilkes on albums other than the ones mentioned. He takes over from the legendary Lester Bowie on the Art Ensemble's latest, the impressive "Noncognitive Aspects of the City." He plays with the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble on "Hot 'n' Heavy," which is also impressive. Another outing is Roscoe Mitchell's "Song for My Sister." This is not a compete list, but it's a beginning.

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