Perfect Sound Forever

Doug Wieselman

Cool Musicians' Go-To Guy for Saxophone, Clarinet, and More
By Kurt Wildermuth
(August 2011)

When the name Doug Wieselman is announced from a stage, you're in good hands. In fact, you're in for something special. Musicians don't bring in a player of Wieselman's caliber unless they plan to give you their all.

Consider the night of Tuesday, March 29, 2011. A large crowd assembled at Le Poisson Rouge, a medium-sized club on Manhattan's Bleecker St. The club specializes in mixing "classical" and "rock," but that night the mix was "To Japan with Love," a benefit organized by Yoko Ono and her son, Sean Lennon. On the bill was the reunited trip-hop duo Cibo Matto, Patti Smith and her band, and Ono with the latest incarnation of the Plastic Ono Band (now with young noisemakers, including Sean). These three acts represented more than enough talent to dazzle the audience. Still, a day before the event, Le Poisson Rouge announced that Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons), Greg Saunier (of Deerhoof), and Lou Reed (of Lou Reed) would also appear. The show unfolded like a strange dream. Every minute was as sweet and ferocious as it was heartfelt. As an added bonus, the saxophonist with Cibo Matto was New York's Doug Wieselman.

Weiselman is not exactly as famous as many of the musicians he plays with, but he is clearly a musician's musician. He has appeared on recordings by Reed, Antony and the Johnsons, Robin Holcomb, Wayne Horvitz, John Zorn, Victoria Williams, Joan as Police Woman, and many other artists. I've seen him perform at least three times: in Robin Holcomb's band, in 2002; in Reed's band for the re-creation of the Berlin album, in 2006; and at the Cibo Matto reunion show, in 2010.

Toward the end of the Japan benefit, Ono and the Plastic Ono Band and Antony and Reed and Wieselman performed a long, sludgy, grinding version of Reed's "Leave Me Alone." It was Reed's gift to his diehard fans: a powerful drone from Street Hassle (1978), one of his best albums. At two or three points, Reed called for sax solos from Wieselman. Each time, Wieselman improvised something wild and free.

Four nights later, about a dozen blocks north, The New School was hosting a concert as part of its first-ever Noir Festival. The guitarist Marc Ribot, another fixture downtown, was performing transcriptions of excerpts from film noir soundtracks, plus music he has written or played on that was inspired by film noir. Ribot led a seven-piece ensemble that included bass, drums, keyboards, strings, and horns. The saxophone player was--you guessed it--Doug Wieselman.

What is so special about Doug Wieselman? What makes him, for so many cool musicians, the go-to guy for saxophone, clarinet, and other wind instruments? Clearly, it's his name. No, not really. There's nothing wrong with his name, but there's nothing particularly right about it. It's not a cool name like Lou Reed or Marc Ribot. It doesn't roll off the tongue or make you want to rush into a music store and demand—or, if you must, go online and order—a Doug Wieselman recording.

At the noir concert, the director of The New School's Jazz and Contemporary Music program delivered some opening remarks. He disputed Ribot's one-time self-description: "noise guitarist." When he described Ribot as a "tasteful" player, the word lingered in the air. It's not a downtown word. He explained that Ribot understands melody, respects a song, and knows when to play and when to hold back.

Is Doug Wieselman the Marc Ribot of the saxophone, clarinet, and other wind instruments? Not necessarily. Wieselman and Ribot were both members of the Lounge Lizards, the shapeshifting NYC ensemble led by John Lurie, but it's hard to picture the self-effacing Wieselman fronting high-profile ensembles and acquiring the hipster cachet that Ribot enjoys. When I've seen him play, Wieselman seemed delighted to be onstage, but he didn't interact visibly with his fellow musicians. He blended into the scene and let the playing speak for itself. Still, Wieselman's general approach to music could be described in the same terms as Ribot's. He understands melody, respects a song, and knows when to play and when to hold back.

Those qualities illuminate Wieselman's Dimly Lit (Tzadik, 2003). This CD collects soundtracks and theater scores that Wieselman wrote and recorded from 1996 through 2002. The 26 pieces here were written to accompany seven different works, but they've been taken out of those contexts and assembled into a new whole, a soundtrack for a movie of the mind. On most of the pieces, Wieselman plays all the instruments, including guitars, bass, drums, percussion, keyboards, and horns. On a few pieces, he is joined by guests, such as the pianist Anthony Coleman, the violinist Jenny Scheinman, and the cellist Jane Scarpantoni (with whom he has played and recorded with the drummer Kenny Wolleson as Trio S). The mood throughout the entire 41 minutes is contemplative, sometimes happily and sometimes sadly.

Here's how it works. The opening track, "Bicycle," is less than a minute long. It consists of a simple, repeating guitar figure, a little percussion, and a wobbly, Philip Glass-ian keyboard sound. Frets squeak. You can feel the room this snippet was recorded in. The sound cuts out, and suddenly a violin plays a staccato rhythm that suggests a train moving fast. Percussion, stringed instruments, something that sounds like a penny whistle, tuba, cello, and swirling wind instruments enter in succession. From there, the music moves in many directions, most of them involving strings, woodwinds, and simple percussion.

Elsewhere, "Tango" features violin and accordion. "Block Dance" is as close to rock as the CD comes, all ringing guitar and thumping percussion. "The Vision" could be Brian Eno's ambient music, with nature sounds playing off a keyboard drone and echoing guitar. "Road" is strummed and wheezed folk. "Dog Run" accelerates the pace of the strumming and adds harmonica. "Bells and Balalaika" is space noise, a little strumming, and a little plucking. "Andrea" is like a folk tune in the process of emerging. "Garden" has the most wheezing percussion ever recorded. "Song" combines the piano of "Waltz" with a voice, probably Wieselman's, singing a wordless melody. This is as close to a pop tune as the CD comes. "Window" is the most charming twenty-six seconds of woodwinds you'll ever hear. "Hatikva"—at 3:44, the longest piece here—combines piano and clarinet to create the sound of memories rising spontaneously. "Shadows," the second-longest piece, uses the same instrumentation, but strips the melody back further and slows the tempo to a crawl. Wieselman's playing here is the essence of unforced lyricism. "Louise 1," the final track, is 51 seconds of woodwinds fading into silence.

If you're looking for quiet, beautiful, evocative, mostly instrumental sounds with a touch of klezmer and a touch of Nino Rota, check out Dimly Lit. Many of the tracks are available for downloading from Amazon. If you're looking for screaming saxophones, look elsewhere. If you're looking for screaming anything, look elsewhere. This music is inclined to whisper. Its goal is maximum expression through minimal gesture.

POST-SCRIPT: Two weeks after I finished this article, I attended the first night of a two-night tribute to the late great Kate McGarrigle at Town Hall in Manhattan. On the bill were many members of Kate's extended musical family, including her sister, Anna McGarrigle; her son, Rufus Wainwright; her daughter, Martha Wainwright; Emmylou Harris; Norah Jones; Teddy Thompson; Jimmy Fallon; and Antony. The clarinetist and saxophonist was--of course!--Doug Wieselman. His solos might have been the best playing I've ever heard from him. They were straight to the point, full of smarts and heart.

During one of Martha Wainwright's performances, Wieselman played a clarinet solo. Wainwright moved back toward the piano to watch and listen. I'd guess the solo lasted at most a minute, and by the end, Wainwright seemed touched and grateful.

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