Phillip Wilson's Esoteric

Over the years, great Swiss label Hat Hut (which operates under the name Hatology these days) has reissued plenty of gems from its catalog that were originally produced in the vinyl era, including material by Steve Lacy, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, and Anthony Braxton. But many of its early releases have remained out of print for decades. Luckily the label (owned by Werner Uehlinger) has begun selling or licensing some of those rare titles. Last year, for example, Aum Fidelity reissued 1979’s superb Birth of a Being by reedist David S. Ware, putting a crucial part of his output back into circulation.

But no current label seems more invested in the old Hat Hut catalog than the one operated by Chicago art gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey. It’s been plucking lost gems from that catalog for years, starting with a raft of titles by Joe McPhee and continuing with releases from Steve Lacy and Jimmy Lyons. Earlier this summer it reissued Esoteric, an out-of-print and overlooked album by great percussionist Phillip Wilson—a Saint Louis native who moved to Chicago and became an early member of the AACM (he was the original drummer in the Art Ensemble of Chicago) as well as a key figure on the local blues scene (he played in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band). Wilson made Esoteric in Paris during two sessions—one in November 1977 and another in May of the following year—and it mixes solo percussion pieces with expansive duos featuring brilliant trumpeter Olu Dara (better known to some as the father of rapper Nas). In 1978 Wilson would record the more widely known Duet with AEC trumpeter Lester Bowie, but it was on Esoteric that he first worked out some of those ideas (the opening three-part suite on Esoteric is called “Lester B”).

It’s a stark album, even when Dara—one of the most lyrical trumpeters to emerge from the 70s avant-garde—joins in. In fact, as you can hear below on a piece titled “Caul Call: The Eso,” Dara experiments with all kinds of smears and textural effects, using half-valving and tonguing techniques to vary his brash, malleable tone from bright and clarion-clear to blubbery and rumbling—his extended techniques helped set the table for current brass radicals such as Peter Evans, Nate Wooley, and Axel Dörner. Wilson is the focal point, though, moving from tough beats to abstract explorations of sound that rely on different parts of his kit—it’s all of a piece for Wilson, as melody, groove, and pure color merge and pull apart. Few records convey such an unadulterated adoration for the sound of the drums, not simply on a micro level but also in how all a trap set’s components work together.

Today’s playlist:

Jackie McLean, One Step Beyond (Blue Note)
Ensemble Musique Vivante, Stockhausen: Aus den Sieben Tagen (Harmonia Mundi)
Various artists, Musik Från Tunisien (Caprice)
Roscoe Holcomb, An Untamed Sense of Control (Smithsonian Folkways)
Mats Äleklint Quartet, Mats Äleklint Quartet (Moserobie)