Following up his collaboration with saxophonist Sam Gendel, the Los Angeles bassist returns with a dreamy album that dissolves jazz structures into ambient, vaguely psychedelic forms.
In his new survey of jazz in the 21st century, Playing Changes, Nate Chinen writes that “to be a successful jazz artist today, on some level, is to be a conceptualist.” In Chinen’s suggestion, it is not enough—or maybe besides the point—for an artist to rely on virtuosity alone. It’s more important, he recently told an interviewer, to have “something to say,” as opposed to just the chops to play. Listening to the dreamy, slightly psychedelic debut album from the Los Angeles bassist Sam Wilkes brings Chinen’s point to mind: By evaporating his own performance, Wilkes has allowed it to condensate into a sound bigger than his own bass.
Over the last couple years, as a session player, Wilkes has proven himself an adaptable spark plug for other musicians and their ideas. He’s backed the electronic duo KNOWER on tour and shines in the kitschy, funk-versions-of-classic-songs cover band Scary Pockets. He has also poked around the Los Angeles jazz scene. A few months ago he partnered with the saxophonist Sam Gendel on Music for Saxofone & Bass Guitar, a remarkably intimate conversation of an album in which the two Sams play for and off each other and tinker with electronics in a warm, low-stakes environment. The fluency of that dialogue was less about their vocabulary than their good company and ideas.
At least in composition, Wilkes’ debut is a more deliberate affair, and supported by a bigger cast that includes the drummer Louis Cole and guitarist Brian Green. In addition to the writing, production, and arrangement on most songs, Wilkes is frequently credited with contributing “all other instruments,” an obscurance that has the funny effect of shedding performance in favor of production, as though he were bandleading from behind. WILKES also extends the collaboration with Gendel, but the album doesn’t train a spotlight on the saxophonist so much as gather the music around him, propping up his horn and coaxing out the best performance of his young career.
The opener, “Welcome,” is the only track not credited to Wilkes: It’s a sighing John Coltrane number that immediately establishes Gendel as the album’s protagonist and Wilkes’ ambient electronics as the stage. Coltrane’s original is a near-standstill ballad; Wilkes’ version replaces the glossy chatter of the studio band’s vamping with ambient tones that cradle Gendel’s saxophone and nudge his swooping, elongated breaths into an elegantly floating performance. (More even than in the original, you can hear how “Welcome” riffs on and stretches out the “Happy Birthday” melody into a distorted, psychedelic meditation not unlike Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner.”)
Much of the album’s background production is characterized by a similar wispiness that lends each track a vaguely psychedelic feeling—an afterglow environment more than a hallucination event. “Hug” presents itself immediately as a dreamy wall of noise, both graceful and a little bewildering in its constant, minutes-long build. The transition from upswell to dissolve is signaled by the fade of Christian Euman’s crashing drum performance. Wilkes regenerates the theme into a downtempo conga groove that glides even further away from the trauma of the opening.
Free of the ambient detours and psychedelic landscaping, “Run” is the most traditional jazz performance on the record, and here Wilkes finally puts his bass forward as the gentle, throbbing center of the rhythm section, a plush scaffold Gendel climbs and eventually launches away from with a soaring solo. It’s not the only moment on WILKES that snapped me into the players and made me want more performative interplay, more actual session recordings. But WILKES feels more nebulous than that. It’s also a remarkably easy record to listen to, inviting in its warmth but also not too smooth. It sounds like Wilkes dreamed up a sound and figured out how to make it real.
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