Last November, a month or so after he released his self-titled debut as a bandleader, bassist Sam Wilkes laid a bunch of AstroTurf on the ground at the Highland Park Ebell Club in Los Angeles and played a few songs with his friends. There was a putting green. Each of the musician’s astrological signs were displayed on a tee-time chart. Specialty tea was provided by Thiên-Anh Tu. It was precisely the kind of small, shared experience that WILKES’ smoothed-down and smoked-out atmosphere calls to mind. You don’t need to look at the chart provided in the gatefold of Live on the Green, Wilkes’ highly modified document of that night, to know that the crowd surrounded the musicians on two sides; this is music that carries the emotional valence of a long, meaningful hug.
Though he’s fully capable of unrolling long, bejeweled runs on his instrument, Wilkes uses Live on the Green to showcase his skills as an arranger and producer. He tends to use his bass the way Lonnie Liston Smith used his piano in Pharoah Sanders’ group, announcing the changes and providing a safe space from which his fellow players can launch, while also perfuming the atmosphere. For their part, the band is largely uninterested in virtuosity or even melody, instead hunkering down in Wilkes’ plushly appointed spaces and generating a thick magenta haze of their own. When a line emerges, as it does from Sam Gendel’s sax in “Run,” the effect is heart-crushingly beautiful.
Much of Live on the Green came together in the studio after that November show, with Wilkes taking a note from Makaya McCraven and deconstructing and heavily editing the recordings after the fact. McCraven skewers his tapes with impossible edits and artful dodges, which both preserves the integrity of free improv and results in an album whose studio finishing is part of the charm. For Wilkes, the lines are much blurrier. In fact, most of Live on the Green is appealingly blurry. Even at its most dissonant — the chopped-to-death cover of an excerpt from Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge,” which thanks to some spritely drumming from Christian Euman comes off like a post-hip-hop Loveless — Live on the Green feels like an organic creation, the combined work of a group of musicians operating on a shared level.
While it’s an admittedly unorthodox move to follow up your debut with a live album — particularly one that pulls half its tracklist from the debut — Live on the Green nevertheless feels like an artistic expansion for Wilkes. Despite the abundant good vibes, there’s an undercurrent of sadness that runs through these songs that was missing on WILKES. On that album, the gorgeous closer “Descending” felt like a mission statement whispered from one lover to another. On Live on the Green, where its two airy parts surround Alice Coltrane’s “Sivaya” and a new original called “Unsure,” “Descending” feels like a long exhale made bumpy by tears, the end of one thing finding strength in knowing that it’s the beginning of something else. words / m garner
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