Chasing the Dragon: Vancouver Guitarist Tony Wilson

Chasing the Dragon
Vancouver Guitarist Tony Wilson

by Josephine Ochej
Copyright © 2000 Josephine Ochej
This feature originally ran in Coda Magazine

Watching Tony Wilson's curved torso hunched over his guitar - head wiggling in an almost catatonic twitch, eyes closed, an expression of tension-filled bliss tightening his face - it's hard to imagine that he exists in any other position. His intensity when making music is quietly fierce and virtually unflinching. Even when on the alert leading a group through newer material, Wilson can slip in and out of a musical consciousness that leads to the magical place where everything and everyone disappears and there is just the music. If there are two schools of music - emotional and cerebral - Wilson is firmly ensconced in the former, as a composer, leader and player.

"That is something that happens sometimes. It's kind of like chasing the dragon - you know, `chasing the dragon'? That's what being a drug addict's all about, you're chasing the high from the firs time you get high it's like a seductress, right? It sucks you in. Music is like that, because you experience that feeling and you never forget it and you're always going, `Gee, that's what I want to feel' and it's a detachment? Something happens and you're just there, you're in the moment, you're living life to its fullest capability, because you are beyond distraction. I think maybe that's why people do a lot of meditating; or very spiritual people, I think that's what they are like, they live in the moment so fully that it's beyond something. It doesn't happen [to me] that often, really. It might look like it, but I know what I'm feeling, I'm conscious of stuff happening around me, I'm listening.

The history of jazz includes colorful, romanticized tales of musicians making their mark, then getting themselves into trouble because growing fame and fortune allowed the frivolity to lead them into temptation. The 39-year-old, largely self-taught Wilson has gone about it the other way `round: a difficult youth eventually gave way to the passion, inspiration and purpose he began to discover when he started playing music at age 18.

"I played a little bit when I was a kid, but I never really got into it, but I listened to music a lot when I was a teenager; rock `n' roll, Zeppelin, a lot of blues - that kind of stuff. I really liked the blues. But I think that was the thing - I really liked music a lot. When I did get the guitar and started working on it, it was there, in a way because I was really into [music]."

Wilson based himself out of Hornby Island off the coast of the British Columbia mainland for five or six years in the `80s while he spent a lot of time travelling had learning guitar. A year spent in a college music program in 1981-82, where he learned theory, set him on the path toward a life in music.

"I learned a lot of the basics, which is really important, the fundamentals of it; I don't think it's necessary, but it helps? It was one of those courses that goes for four years and you get a degree. I wasn't really into that, so I went for a year, and I figured I would just try and play and do it myself? Then I came to [Vancouver] in '87, and that's when I started getting into music seriously."

He joined Video Barbeque, a jazz-based group with rock leanings, where he first experienced the camaraderie of creating as part of a musical team. Wilson and other members of that group were interested in getting into jazz and soon the guitarist hooked up with Vancouver players like drummer Roger Baird, bassist Clyde Reed and baritone saxist Daniel Miles Kane, guys he still plays with today. Wilson began to explore various genres and many technical and emotional elements of these weave through and influence his work. His four main active groups are the Tony Wilson Sextet, the explosive, powerhouse Albert Ayler tribute band called Flowers for Albert (which has two drummers, two bassists, guitar, sax and sometimes trombone), the Irish-influenced group Celtic Works (which he co-leads), and Bugs Inside, an avant garde-leaning group which plays originals and material by the likes of John Zorn and Captain Beefheart.

"I do enjoy lots of music, as well, not just jazz? like classical music? Buffy Saint Marie - I love folk music. I'm not up so much on the music now, but I loved Nirvana. I thought Kurt Cobain was really something, he really expressed himself. That's what gets you, it is the feeling of the songs. Sometimes the subject matter will be something that possibly I'll be familiar with, but I think a lot of it is the spirit? A lot of people in jazz have that feeling, because it's the kind of music that you're not in it for the money because the money isn't there. I don't make the stylistic differences a lot of people make about music? I was, for a long time really into jazz, and it was an educational thing. I wanted to play it so I learned how to play be-bop and that's how I learned music."

He eventually hooked up with ex-Vancouverite/current-Berliner bassist Joe Williamson and drummer Dylan van der Schyff, forming a trio that would busk the streets of Vancouver. The three had similar musical aspirations and philosophies that spawned a long-standing friendship which carries on to this day, and eventually would roll Wilson and van der Schyff over into the current grouping of the Tony Wilson Sextet (which also includes cellist Peggy Lee, saxist Dave Say, bassist Paul Blaney, and trumpeter Kevin Elaschuk).

"We started learning together and kind of influencing each other, and really, that's where I get what I've gotten, from all the people I've played with. Being part of the scene here is what's taught me a lot of what I know, gotten me where I am. There's a good music scene here, lots of musicians, and if you're gonna play with these people, you have to be able to play and? you have to get serious."

Part of that is grabbing an opportunity when it happens along and the ever humble Wilson says he's more apt to recognize a possibility than plan one. For example, of the 1991 birth of his Sextet (originally a Septet which included clarinetist Francois Houle) he says, "I didn't really think about it, it just kind of happened. Most of the stuff I do is like that, I have an opportunity to do something, and so I do it, right? Even if I don't maybe know how, I'll figure out how to do it. So, as the people [in this group] came along, and we developed that kind of thing together, then it was, `Well, this is the right thing to have'."

That right thing finds if longevity in the musical solidarity and respect the members of the Tony Wilson Sextet share for each other as people and as colleagues. There's an old quote about how jazz is music better appreciated when it's `seen' live, and anyone at a TW Sextet gig can see why just by looking at the players' faces. The blissfully satisfied smiles, and the sense of peace and belonging is clearly visible in the way they just look at each other, and it's as sonically apparent as it is visually throughout the music. That musicians find and connect with another in something so personal as music is an amazing thing; that six such people come together in one such group to find that magic again and again is extremely rare.

"I think some people can play with whoever, they don't really care. For me, it does matter. I like to be on the same kind of thinking and you know, we're on that. And everyone's up for it."

The luxury of playing openly, straight from the heart practically without fear, seems to be the magic ingredient that ties Wilson's music and the members of his sextet together indelibly. The necessity to communicate and feel is what drives Wilson to write and perform. If you asked almost anyone who has heard Wilson play to describe his musical vibe, the word most often used is melancholy. There's an inherent sadness that weaves its way through his music, which often moves at an almost slow-motion pace that seems designed so the listener can hear the emotion and actually live in it that moment before it moves on. That depth of feeling is also embodied in the sadly resonating tones of his guitar. In the search to expand the possibilities of the guitar, Wilson employs objects like chop sticks, metal rods, wire drum brushes and other implements which he places between or rubs against the strings, and has developed a remarkable control over vibration techniques. That said, Wilson's focus is not centered around chops, scales, technical wizardry and the like - those practicalities are necessary, but they're more the means to an end, and the end here is expressing feeling. His musical and life perspectives are naturally intertwined, both arising from an outlook on the downside of the world that can only come from having lived it, survived it and made efforts to use all of it to strengthen the self - all the while never forgetting where you're been. And if you listen more closely and more often, you will also come to hear more and more the sense of hope that exists quietly alongside the sadness.

"A lot of what I write, you can hear it has that melancholy in it. And a lot of that is coming from that kind of idealism where I just wish it were better? My take on it is that you have to do so much turning of your head as you go through life, that after [a while] it becomes easier and easier to turn your head, you just don't see it anymore. It's very unfortunate because we're all human and there's no real reason why we should all be out there hurting anyone or looking down on anyone. ?Being an individualist and caring and having compassion, all that stuff, it comes from a more, I would say, human perspective, instead of always wanting to please someone or have money. That's one way to live and when you live that way you lose your compassion. You become numb. You have to, you can't care. But how would you make the money and all this other shit you've got to do? You have to become numb to the situations around us, and I've never lived like that. So I'm not numbed. Of course, I've seen a lot of nasty things and I personally have done a lot of nasty things, and I'm not proud of that, but it happens, so obviously I've been there."

Wilson's ability to relate to the struggle of the downtrodden and underdogs of society is clearly discernible in his music, and the musicians he chooses to tribute. His respect for an understanding of where they're coming from has inspired him to put together programs honoring Thelonious Monk, Don Cherry, and Jim Pepper, to name a few. In fact, many of Wilson's song titles start with the word "For" and end with a name: For Albert, For Freddie Stone No. 2, For Don, etc.

"all of these guys, they have the feeling in the music. You listen to Don Cherry - it's a feeling. There's so many of them - a lot of the guys I love are very mainstream guys, like Dexter Gordon. I love all those guys, and I think it's because they dedicated their lives to music. That's what I respect. Dal Richards here in Vancouver - he's been playing music for years and I respect the guy a lot. I don't even know him. He put all that time into his music and I respect that in a person? There are three reasons I do tributes: One is I want to learn and it's the best way to learn, to put in the work learning the songs off the record, finding out exactly what they're doing by spending the hours doing it; another thing is it's a good way to get the people to gigs, economically [speaking]. You can do a Duke Ellington tribute and people will come; and the other thing is I think it's nice when you do something like that, and a bunch of people come and if this thing has influence, [for] the people who are there - this guy has made a difference."

Getting to his own sound and style as a jazz musician and leader has been an evolving process of learning and experimentation during the 20 years he's been playing. A growing love of jazz and a desire to hone his guitar skills caused Wilson to learn the ins and outs of be-bop, but he says that composing has always come more easily than playing. He's been commissioned to write pieces for Vancouver's Little Chamber Music society, the Hard Rubber Orchestra, Kokoro Dance, the classical/new music group Standing Wave, and Wilson penned a beautifully haunting work for a 1999 Vancouver International Jazz Festival appearance by clarinetist Francois Houle with a string quartet consisting of Peggy Lee, violist Ig Henneman, bassist Barre Phillips and violinist Mary Oliver.

"Composing me for very natural, and guitar has been a bit more of a study working on stuff and checking out other people and learning things off records. It's all come from that, and just finding little things, sitting there playing, you get a sound. I use a lot of things on my guitar and rub them; I put things on it that make a sound like it's not a guitar. But it's a very simple thing, and these manipulations] are not new. They're all been done by other people and I just do `em the way I do them? I think an instrument eventually mirrors the person that's playing it. You try and get to that place where finally it's part f you, or it's second nature. I don't think about it very much when I'm playing. It's not like I don't know what I'm doing, I just don't think about it because I don't have to. And I think that's not rare, everyone gets to that place slowly, it comes through doing it. If you build windows all day, in 20 years you'd get pretty good at it, and probably make some windows like no one else does. Playing an instrument is no different. For me, it's taken a little more study, it seems harder than writing. Writing is really easy for me, for some reason it's like a gift from god or something. I just have a gift of hearing music."

Wilson's composing style is organic; he hears it in his head, and translates that onto paper. His formal compositional training started the year he spent in a college jazz program, and ever since he's developed his style naturally through writing. "I hear stuff - all the time, I'm hearing music. It's almost partially a curse sometimes? it's inside me and it comes out, and that's the thing; I don't buy into the whole thing of the big composer-genius. You get stuff that comes from somewhere, you're not creating it all; I believe there's other things happening there? something's coming out of you? I'm not an intellectual musicians. I've learned everything about composing, really, from my head, right. I figure it out; I hear something, I write it out. I've never intellectualized the process. I never go, `Gee, well, that note is there and then this note should work. . . ."

Over the years Wilson's picked up other instruments here and there in the search for further perspective on composing and for the challenge as a player. He's spent some time picking up the bass, cello, drums, piano, a bit of saxophone, and this past Spring he made his debut in a sort of Jekyl and Hyde move as a rookie trombonist blowing all fierce and blaring at a TW Sextet gig and soundly shocked all who knew him as a pretty sedate guitarist.

"I was pretty nervous about it. Guitar is a very inward instrument, you're in your guitar. Sure, the sound is coming out, but for me, it's an introspective kind of instrument; whereas a horn instrument, it's all going out, it's extroverted. It's not necessarily your personality, but the way the sound is working; it's out. It's been a really nice thing to play the trombone for that reason because it's totally different. I fool around with these things, I play lots of percussion stuff. I make little instruments. That's all just my? having fun."

Discography
TONY WILSON SEXTET, Lowest Note, Spool, 2000
PEGGY LEE BAND, self-titled, Spool, 1999
SAUL BERSON, From Here to Beyond, Moco Loco Productions, 1998
LONESOME MONSTERS, Highlights of a Low Life, Festival, 1998
CELTIC WORKS, self-titled, Plant a Tree, 1997
BRASS ROOTS, Laconda Rift, Brass Roots Records, 1996
FRANCOIS HOULE, Schizosphere, Red Toucan Records, 1995
PETER HURTON TRIO, Christmas Notes, Plant a Tree, 1993
FRANCOIS HOULE, Hacienda, Songlines Recordings, 1992
PETER HURON QUARTET, Bowling Trophies, Plant a Tree, 1992
VIDEO BARBEQUE, Maximalism, Big City, 1991


C o m m e n t s

Tony Wilson / Jim Pepper 1 of 2
Bill Siegel March 30, 06

would love to know more about tony wilson - especially about his tribute to jim pepper. i'm working on a research project about pepper's music, and its influence on contemporary music, and am interested in hearing directly from the people who worked with him and/or have covered his work. please send info to, or have tony contact me at bmsiegel@adelphia.net. And check out www.zayde.net/jimpepperlives !! thanks!

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