Live on the Green: Sam Wilkes’ Amorphous Jazz

Will Schube explores the Los Angeles jazz experimentalist's new live album.
By    November 14, 2019

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Despite only one studio album under his belt, Sam Wilkes is a leading voice in LA’s thrilling experimental jazz scene. From his debut LP, WILKES, to his heady collaborations with Sam Gendel, his work on Teebs’ stellar Anicca, and a spot on LEAVING’s eclectic roster, Wilkes has emerged as both a thrilling leading man and a go-to bass player for some of LA’s most exciting musicians. He’s also rather unorthodox in his songwriting approach. His bass moves far from the center, instead allowing his instrument to be enveloped by the sounds of his collaborators.

After the release of Wilkes, the bassist arranged a live show highlighted by an AstroTurf sitting area at a Highland Park club. That performance is the subject of his new LP, Live on The Green, an intriguing reflection of that album that sticks to its source material while finding plenty of room for improvisation.

The bulk of the album was recorded at the show, but a staggering Alice Coltrane cover and “Unsure” were recorded at Nest Recorders Etc. These studio intrusions offer a nice counterpoint to the looseness of the live performances, illustrating Wilkes’ strength as an arranger. He infuses Coltrane’s song with a lounge jazz vibe, awash in snare brushes and guitar vamps that seem to steal their tone from the chillwave era. It’s a fascinating take on a musician who’s style doesn’t often lend itself to radical reinterpretation, but Wilkes is a rare talent.

Following up a debut with a live record seems like an odd choice, but doing anything else, in hindsight, would be a betrayal of Sam Wilkes’ vision. Sure, WILKES was a “solo” LP, but its strength lies in the way he musically communicates with his players. On Live on the Green, he’s in total lockstep with drummer Christian Euman, allowing guitarists Adam Ratner and Brian Green to stretch out, and consistently ceding the lead to his favorite weapon, Sam Gendel. The saxophonist blankets the entire LP in his smooth and nuanced tone, infusing the album with a nearly tangible texture that accompanies the entire album.

Sam Wilkes is a musician whose love of music comes across in every note he plays. When I profiled him for The LAnd last year, his encyclopedic knowledge of jazz (both LA and national) was intoxicating, as was the enthusiasm with which he talked about his idols—showing equal reverence for John Coltrane and Jerry Garcia. This eclectic taste is at the heart of Sam Wilkes’ work. It’s not really jazz, but it’s also very certainly jazz. It’s multiplicitous, which all great art is. Live on the Green is both patient and urgent, a deep breath from an artist who sincerely speaks through his music. It sounds corny, but Sam Wilkes makes sincerity music. It’s as deeply felt as it is played, and it’s played really damn well.

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