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Granddaddy of Them All

[whitespace] 'Now's the Time' for seminal organist Reuben Wilson

By Nicky Baxter

What do Q-Tip, A Tribe Called Quest and US3 have in common, besides being hip-hop and acid-jazz heavies? All have been influenced by organist Reuben Wilson. Decades before these new-era beat-keepers made their marks, Wilson was serving up grooves that would be used as fodder for contemporary funk and soul-jazz. Along with the likes of Jimmy Smith, Richard Holmes and Jimmy McGriff, Wilson can justly be regarded as a granddaddy to many of today's pulse-finders. As far back as the late 1960s, Reuben Wilson was recording classic sessions such as On Broadway, a collection of irresistibly danceable numbers, roiling with fat, surging rhythms. Though he never quite attained the popularity of some of his peers, he was much in demand as a session man, performing with improvisational-music icons Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan and others. With the ascent of disco, Wilson somehow got lost in the shuffle; this decade, however, has seen the B-3 Hammond player's music being sampled by a legion of younger artists, most notably Nas and A Tribe Called Quest. Wilson has also toured and performed with rapper/jazz fanatic Guru and his Jazzmatazz.

Wilson is a master of subterranean hip-bop, his signature staccato notes and smoothly flowing tone simultaneously accent and propel the music forward. The New York-based Wilson, now 63, is riding a new wave of popularity, thanks in part to his new release Organ Donor (Jazzateria). Consisting of eight tracks, the majority of which were written by the organist, the album has critics falling all over themselves to sing Wilson's praises. Cuts like "Orange Peel" and "Now's The Time" flaunt herky-jerk, head-bobbing beats that survey the past without getting stuck there. The former song finds Wilson and an accomplished supporting cast remodeling James Brown's "Cold Sweat" to suit their own musical ends. With a bottom-dwelling bass figure and taut drumming anchoring things, reedman Melvin Butler blows with soul-felt kineticism. Wilson tampers with the stuttering rhythm, pushing out curt stabs of organ, alternately riding and embellishing it.

"Now's the Time" is more of a funk sneak attack. Coil-spring wah-wah pedal guitar, sturdy, melodious bass and wire-taut stickwork underscores the tune's sublimely groove-oriented sound. Wilson's seemingly effortless playing shines here, mixing single-note runs with sonorous chordal work. Perhaps the session leader's finest moment as a writer, "Now's the Time's" languorous riff has all the makings of a modern classic. Wilson's current wave of popularity may be a bit late in the game, and even now he doesn't enjoy the kind of name recognition as Jimmy Smith or Jack McDuff, but the organist is staking out his claim as a central figure in the resurgence of the big B-3.

Reuben Wilson plays Saturday (Aug. 22) at 9pm at the Agenda Lounge, 399 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $3. 408/287-4087.

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From the August 20-26, 1998 issue of Metro.

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