How much has changed since Steve Wilson released Soulful Song nine years ago? If his residency with guest Carla Cook at the Jazz Standard was any indication, his fondness for vocal accompaniment is alive and well – but as a player and composer, Wilson grooves with a humbler impetus than the funk of years past. Dubbed the Steve Wilson Super Band, the saxist’s latest configuration is super by all means, featuring contrabassist James Genus of Saturday Night Live fame, Grammy-winning drummer Billy Kilson, and pianist Patrice Rushen, the Grammy Awards’ first female musical director.
Wilson’s marathon soprano sax solo on Monk’s “Bright Mississippi” offered his star-studded band the perfect grounds upon which to extrapolate. While Wilson paused to take a breath, Genus took flight, releasing from his cavernous instrument a thick and muscular rhythm. Rushen steered toward a thoughtful vibe, streaming through the melody as cleanly as water. Kilson’s aural fireworks set a powerful counterpoint to her clement style, morphing from a few tentative cymbal taps to a boisterous affair of clangs and thwacks.
The athletic drummer wasn’t all pyrotechnics, providing a light swishing momentum on Wilson’s “Be One”. Wilson eased into the growlingly candlelit ambience too, picking up a fuller-bodied alto sax while Genus coaxed the gentler side of his contrabass. Rushen emerged as queen of the flourishes, punctuating the mood with expressive morsels of piano. And though Carla Cook was scheduled to appear on two nights of the band’s four-day stay, Wilson paid the vocalist homage in her absence, melting in and out of brassy sashays in his own good time.
The band paid real homage to the days of yonder on Miles Davis’ “Directions”, rekindling their old spark in a slew of sax bursts, keyboard synths, and blasts of contrabass. And it was in this piece that Kilson launched into the most controversial solo of the night. Equal parts bombastic, chaotic, and soul-driven, his unaccompanied affair diverged the audience into two streams: the chair-shaking clappers, and their silent, borderline-offended counterparts. Perhaps understandably so – his explosive intensity is not made to lull the ears at first listen. But the truth remains that on this jam, Kilson was the flame behind the band’s fire, flaring, crashing, and burning with unapologetic fervor.