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Coming Home

Sax player Steve Wilson returns to Richmond, but this time he’s headlining.


He built a reputation as a stellar sideman with Ralph Peterson’s Fo’tet, the Dave Holland Quintet and currently with Chick Corea’s Origin band. Along the way he also appeared with a who’s who of jazz greats including Joe Henderson, Don Byron and Dianne Reeves. His style is simultaneously virtuosic and straightforward, full of clear ideas cleanly executed.

In the early 1990s he started leading sessions and playing his own compositions and arrangements. His most recent release, “Soulful Song” (MaxJazz) features six Wilson originals, interspersed with an eclectic selection of songs by Stevie Wonder, Patrice Rushen and Gil Scott Heron.

The compact disc pays tribute to the black radio stations of the ’60s and ’70s. “That’s the era I grew up in,” says the Tidewater-born Wilson. “There was one radio station in Norfolk, WRAP, where you could hear everything from the latest material to R&B, Motown, Stax, gospel and jazz. There were syndicated columnists, and sometimes comedy routines by Moms Mabley, Dick Gregory or Richard Pryor. It not only entertained us, it enlightened us.”

That era, Wilson laments, is gone, replaced by monopolistic conglomerates, which not only control the airwaves but also concert promotions. Music has become compartmentalized, shattered into distinct genres. “A lot of the new music is neither uplifting or redeeming,” he says. “As a parent of an 11-year-old son I am concerned.”

Wilson says that the label gave him total artistic freedom shaping “Soulful Song”; he used it to hearken to a more positive and inclusive era. His vision created some technical challenges, not the least of which was evoking the experience of listening to a sequence of very different, highly individual bands without compromising his own creative focus. “The nucleus of the band, the core quartet is the common thread,” Wilson says. “The variety is established with the vocals.”

The singers, MaxJazz label-mates Rene Marie, Carla Cook and Philip Manuel, work through a set of songs ranging from straight-ahead jazz to gospel to political commentary. (Ex-Richmonder Marie’s version of Abby Lincoln’s “Caged Bird” is a particular standout.) Cast in an accompanist role on eight of the 13 tracks, Wilson gets to cut loose a bit more on the five instrumentals.

Many of the players on the recording will be present at the Richmond performance, including Marie and Manual, as well as the core quartet — the excellent Bruce Barth on piano, James Genus on bass and Adam Cruz on drums and percussion.

He’s come a long way from Virginia Commonwealth University jazz studies student, playing in local bands, bars and weddings (including mine in May 1987.) His success comes from an amalgam of talent, flexibility and self-effacing hard work. His exemplary support for other players even resulted in a New York Times profile titled “A Sideman’s Life.”

Even as a leader, he is first and foremost a group player. “My first concern is the communication between the musicians on the stage,” Wilson says. “If that’s not there, the music is not going to be good. If you feel that connection, and have that trust, anything is possible.”

Wilson says he is excited to be coming back to the city that nourished his early career. After long years of building respect in the supporting shadows it has to be satisfying to come back to VCU headlining an all-star band. But the concert, which benefits the Richmond Jazz Society, while something of a triumph, is at heart a long-overdue homecoming. S

Steve Wilson performs Saturday, Oct. 18, at 9 p.m. at Vlahcevic Concert Hall in the Singleton Performing Arts Center at VCU, 922 Park Ave. Tickets cost $25-$50. Call 643-1972.

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