Good times with some of Joan Wildman’s recordings – Tone Madison
A closer look at some highlights from a varied and decades-long discography.
Image from the tape “Under The Silver Globe” courtesy of Mills Music Library at UW-Madison.
This is the second in a short series of articles Tone Madison revolves around the recorded works of pianist Joan Wildman. Read our previous article on Wildman’s elusive discography and check back soon for a collection of memorabilia from the Wildman collaboration.
Joan Wildman performed, composed and collaborated with relentless curiosity until her death in 2020 at the age of 82. The longtime pianist and music teacher at UW-Madison had a deep foundation in jazz and classical music, but also created her own approaches to electronic and experimental music, programming custom sounds into her Yamaha synthesizer. DX-7 and assembling genres and traditions as it pleases.
Those who may have watched Wildman perform live, or better yet perform or study with her, need no recordings to understand that she was a masterful improviser and a strange composer. That said, his recordings deserve greater recognition. At the moment, many of them are not easily accessible for listeners. Wildman’s fully self-published discography covers a range of settings and approaches. This body of work is so varied and accomplished that it would be hard to really do it justice in the space of one article. To at least give you an idea of Wildman’s range, I’ve picked out a few key moments from across the decades.
Of the three albums recorded by Wildman as a trio with bassist Hans Sturm and percussionist Dane Richeson, the years 1989 Under the silver globe is the most difficult to track down. It was never released except on tape, and like most of Wildman’s recordings, he never enjoyed distribution or promotion much. Sturm remembers Wildman inventing the title after being fascinated by the disco ball in an old North Side ballroom where she played Dixieland jazz, the late trumpeter Doc DeHaven and other musicians. The actual music on Under the silver globe, however, was recorded in part at O’Cayz Corral and ventures away from all that is traditional, mixing free-jazz improvisation with synths that growl, growl and refract. The closing track, “Mumble Mombo” embraces both rhythm and deconstructs it, giving Richeson and Sturm plenty of time to stretch before Wildman’s tangled synth phrases appear.
The same composition reappears in 2012 as the opening track of the eponymous debut album of the Full House Quintet. This time, Wildman sets the tone with electronic percussion, while violist Diedre Buckley and bassoonists Willy Walter and Richard Lottridge channel the coiled melodies through a range of timbres and phrasing. (Bassist Douglas Hill was also a member of the Full House Quintet, but was not credited on that particular track.)
These two recordings of “Mumble Mombo” took place more than 20 years apart and in radically different settings. In the Joan Wildman Trio, Wildman worked with two other seasoned improvisers. In Full House Quintet, she worked primarily with accomplished classical musicians who had less experience with improvised music. (All five members contributed to compositions.) The trio’s recording of the composition gives it a wild, almost sinuous feel, while Full House Quintet takes a more tense and upbeat approach. But in both versions, this deeply strange and unsightly composition is revealed with remarkable clarity of purpose.
“Miles of tiles”
Full House Quintet second album, 2013 Generic cards, begins in a disturbing way with this composition of Wildman. Wildman’s synth arrangement here might stand on its own as a complete piece, combining an eerie impulse with patiently unfolding main phrases that Lottridge, Buckley, and Walter pick up and pull in different directions. Already pulling a multitude of ideas from jazz and classical music into one fluid conversation, Full House also delves deep here into the realm of electronic music. “Miles Of Tiles” seems to gradually transform into something completely different, focusing on Wildman’s piano, Hill’s conversational bass work, and shimmering electronic chimes.
Wildman collaborated with bassist and flautist Joe Fonda for the 2015 album Conversations, recording much of it at a live show that same year at the Brink Lounge. “Quince” begins in walk-and-walk territory, then takes a hairpin bend as Wildman layers tense cascading figures that have more in common with Steve Reich. Wildman, who was 77 at the time of recording, manages to keep a whole range of musical ideas in play both in his mind and on the keyboard. After four simply dazzling minutes, Fonda appears with figures that are becoming more and more impactful and impetuous.