Fellow pianist Jane Reynolds will share the late avant-jazz musician’s rare recordings in an afternoon broadcast.
Photo: WORT-FM’s studio on South Bedford Street in downtown Madison. Photo via Emily Mills on Flickr
When pianist, UW-Madison professor, composer, improviser, and experimental-music adventurer Joan Wildman died in 2020, she left behind brilliant recordings that are often very hard to track down. On Thursday, October 28 from 2 to 5 p.m., WORT-FM’s Strictly Jazz Sounds show will give listeners a chance to delve into this discography alongside one of the musicians who knew Wildman best.
Pianist Jane Reynolds will be playing a wide selection of Wildman’s recordings on the show, plus some interview material and other remembrances. You can listen at 89.9 FM, livestream it via the WORT website, or find it for a couple weeks after the broadcast by spelunking in WORT’s online archive.
“In addition to her music, I’ll be reading tributes from musicians and colleagues who knew her,” Reynolds says via email. “And we will hear from Joan herself during her interview on WORT in 2005, teaching us about the art of stride piano.”
Reynolds plans to feature the Joan Wildman Trio’s three albums, which together form an enthralling document of Wildman’s work as a bandleader and composer: Orphan Folk Music (1987), Under The Silver Globe (1989), and Inside Out (1992). The chance to hear selections from Under The Silver Globe is especially precious: It appears the album only ever came out on cassette, but Reynolds got ahold of a digital transfer for the broadcast. All three of these records also feature bassist Hans Sturm and drummer Dane Richeson, and capture Wildman’s gift for pushing jazz and classical traditions into strangely beautiful new territory. (Coincidentally, Richeson is slated to play on Sunday, October 24 at the North Street Cabaret in trumpeter David Cooper‘s project Quad.)
“This tribute show is a labor of love for me. Joan has been my teacher, mentor and friend since she arrived at UW in 1977,” Reynolds says. “She was a uniquely creative pianist and composer whose body of work included electronic music and computer animations.”
A formidable pianist who once sat in for an ailing Duke Ellington, Wildman also mastered the Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer, among other tools of synthesis and sampling.
“It’s interesting to hear the evolution of Joan’s early synthesizer work in particular,” Reynolds says. “We’ll also hear the trio from 2005 [in] her personal recording of the trio performing at the Isthmus Jazz Fest. I’ll play from one of several recordings she released with her Full House Quintet, and from her last live recording, which was in 2015 in a duo performance with bassist Joe Fonda. Joan is also featured on the Roscoe Mitchell recording Four Compositions.”
Wildman and her collaborators put a great deal of care into her recordings, but during her lifetime Wildman didn’t show much interest in widely distributing or promoting these works. She self-released most of them, apparently putting up her own money for limited CD, tape, or vinyl manufacturing. Some of these albums literally list Wildman’s home address right in the liner notes or on the LP label. There’s no evidence that the rights or master tapes ever belonged to an outside label or publishing company, and it’s unclear who holds the rights after Wildman’s death. Collectors and reissue labels have shown some interest in preserving this music, but for now a lot of the physical releases are extremely hard to find, and most are not available for digital purchase or streaming either. Perhaps Reynolds’ radio tribute will stir up more interest in these recordings and expose a few new listeners to Wildman’s singular musical universe.
In the spirit of sharing remembrances: While reporting a couple of stories on Wildman’s discography earlier this year, I heard a lot of reflections from her fellow musicians about what it was like to collaborate with her. Here are a few, presented in no particular order.
Deidre Buckley (viola, Full House Quintet)
On Wildman’s listening habits: “She loved listening to country music. One day I came and she was like ‘Oh! Charlie Daniels Band, this is great, you gotta just listen to it.’ Joan was all about, good music is good music, and she definitely defied boundaries.”
On collaborating with Wildman in Full House Quintet: “We were trying to improve ourselves in every direction. So sometimes standards, sometimes writing our own stuff, sometimes inspired by other people. A lot of her stuff was completely different. A lot of times we’d come to rehearsal at her house, and she’d have put together this crazy soundscape on the synthesizer, and she’d have charts for us, and we’d have to try to sync with this thing without [all] having headphones.”
Hans Sturm (bassist, Joan Wildman Trio)
On recording and composing with the trio: “There are things that happen that you can’t explain… there are things that happen that you can’t understand, or ways of knowing that you can’t put your finger on, that come from working together for a long period of time. I think it’s understandable to most folks—you’re working with certain people for a long period of time, or you’re a couple for a long time with somebody, you begin to understand them in ways they might not even understand themselves. There’s a depth to that kind of work that takes place. Even though some of the material was written particularly for these recordings, it was all carefully rehearsed, but it was done freely. We’re dealing with music that is sometimes quite complex, the composition element, but the improvisation elements are built from that framework.”
On playing live with Wildman: “She would occasionally just feel like, ‘You know what? I’m done playing for the moment. I’ve said all I want to say’—she wouldn’t say this out loud, she would just finish her solo and she would get up and go to the bar, and leave Dane and me to play for a while.”
Laurie Lang (bassist, and frequent collaborator)
On playing with Wildman at Wildman’s home: “Her M.O. was always, ‘let’s create,’ and pushing people to create, and to go from wherever they were to doing something, stretching themselves, or doing something comfortable or whatever, but just pushing that and really listening to one another and just trying to make the most music out of whatever you have in your hand, or with your voice in some cases…. That was the really cool thing about hanging with Joan. It always stretched your creativity, as a fellow musician or as an instructor also.”
On Wildman’s use of loops generated with digital samplers: “You’d improvise over that loop… it was a longer loop, so it wasn’t like it was two bars or something, and it was something that you really kind of had to grow with, and every time it came around, it would be a little different in how you wanted to respond to it. She’s responding to it too, so we’re all responding to it. It takes on a life of its own.”
Dane Richeson (percussionist, Joan Wildman Trio)
On Wildman’s use of the DX-7 synthesizer: “Typical Joan, she can’t just accept the DX-7 stock sounds. She manipulated the instrument to produce the kinds of sounds she was hearing in her head. I remember that really struck me—she was just always pushing the boundaries. She’d encourage me to be as experimental as possible.”
Dean Robbins (journalist, Isthmus)
On seeing Wildman’s frequent live performances around Madison in the 1980s and 1990s: “There was a following. She could utterly delight people… she had free sections in her music, but she didn’t have the kind of self-indulgence that a lot of free jazz falls prey to, which is much more fun for the player than it is for the listener. Her music was just totally about taking you on a journey and pulling you in, rather than kind of shutting you out, even though it was out-there and it could be tonally challenging and structurally challenging. But she had a genius for pulling people in, even people who weren’t necessarily fans of the avant-garde. She could just delight an audience. I mean, yeah, you could imagine some people walking out, and I think I saw that at times, but more often I saw people being just utterly won over.”
There’s more where this came from.
If you enjoyed this story, sign up for the Tone Madison email newsletter. It’s the best way to keep up with our work, and it hits your inbox every Thursday morning, complete with our special Microtones column and more.
Help us publish more stories like this one.