Dan Wilson made a name for himself as a dynamic guitarist on the rejuvenated modern jazz scene. Throughout his career, Wilson played alongside jazz greats including organist Joey DeFrancesco and bassist Christian McBride. On his previous records, such as Vessels of Wood and Earth, Wilson drew comparisons to a young George Benson and other guitar greats. A student of the’60s soul-jazz wave and influenced by other far-reaching styles like Brazilian and Afro-Cuban folkloric music, Wilson is a master of improvisation and delivers a smoking hot set whenever he performs. A student of all things musical and life in general, Wilson explores such topics as grief with a unique and inspiring sonic point of view.
On his latest album, Things Eternal, Wilson’s playing sizzles with dexterity and spirit. Not many musicians can strike a chord with a wide range of musical listeners, but Wilson manages it with ease. Things Eternal, released in May, vibes on a touching array of tone-packed songs highlighting Wilson’s emotive jazz and soulful style. The new album also includes a host of vibrant covers such as an impressive version of The Beatles’ classic “Eleanor Rigby.”
Interestingly, the title of Things Eternal is taken from the hymn “Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand,” in which Wilson found comfort during some of the most challenging times of his life. “The last part of the chorus says, ‘Build your hopes on things eternal and hold on to God’s unchanging hand.’ That always resonated with me. As I’ve been going through these life changes, those words are coming to the surface for me,” said the guitarist.
Wilson touched base with ClassicRockHistory.com to explore the jazzy, soulful side of music and offers his intense commentary on life, songwriting and navigating loss.
What fueled your passion for guitar?
The music of the church I grew up in was completely driven by guitar. The number of skilled guitar players in that church is astounding. The guitar tradition in that church goes back to the 40s and 50s. One particular player named Arthur Lee Gale revolutionized the way all of us played in church. He was and still is my hero on the instrument, and he fueled my passion for the guitar.
How did your experiences playing guitar in church further connect you with music?
We used to go to church Tuesday, Friday, and twice on Sunday. I didn’t realize it at the time, but these experiences solidified my ability to play, and more importantly, to hear music. Before we ever picked up an instrument, we participated in devotional service. Everyone in the church clapped and sang. It wasn’t even an option to opt out. By the time we picked up an instrument, most of the problems people run into with hearing music had already been solved.
Your new album kicks off with a vibrant cover of “Sticology” (by composer Phillip Jones). You’ve said that song is a classic in Northeast Ohio. Tell me about the song, incorporating it into your sets and now recording it.
Phil is nothing short of a musical genius. He wrote that song when he was 17 years old. I used to play it a lot with him when he lived in Cleveland. I believe it captures the musical essence of the Ohio jazz scene. All of the sections of the tune represent the experience of an Ohio jazz musician. You’re going to have to play some funk, smooth jazz, and straight ahead with equal enthusiasm and skill if you want to work here. “Sticology” requires skills learned from all of those genres. I brought it to the band last summer, and we got a great response from festival audiences, so we had to document it.
Additionally, the intro has a special touch–a voice message you saved from your mentor organist, Joey DeFrancesco who recently passed away. What have you learned from him?
We’d be here for years if I told you everything I learned from Joey. I learned the importance of having a steady band from him. He took us to every continent on earth and talked us up to our heroes in music. I also learned the importance of advocacy from him. He personally called the president of Benedetto guitars and convinced him to give me an endorsement. He personally introduced me to my hero George Benson. After that experience, and after losing him so suddenly, part of my mission has become advocating for serious musicians.
In fact, you incorporate other saved voice messages on the album from those who have passed. I think that’s something people can really relate to. Is it a way of acknowledging or remembering the spirit of loved ones? Do you save messages a lot?
Being a musician, sound is obviously an important way we process the world around us. The sound of someone’s voice is a particularly vivid way for me to remember them. I think a voicemail is the perfect way to capture and preserve someone’s unguarded essence. I have a whole Dropbox folder of voicemails of people who have been and are important to me. It keeps their unguarded essence fresh in my mind.
Jazz bassist Christian McBride co-produced the album which is released on Brother Mister Productions (McBride’s Imprint with Mack Avenue Music Group). What was the overall approach/process for recording/producing the album?
McBride is such a bad dude. His advocacy for me on and off the bandstand has been nothing short of inspiring. These Philly cats are a special breed. He was on the road with Joshua Redman, and I called him up and said, “I gotta get this music documented. We’ve been working out all summer, and I think we can knock it out.” He came right off of the road to Akron for a day and lifted our spirits just by being in the studio.
What brought you to covering The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”? How did you approach tackling this classic song?
I was introduced to The Beatles’ music through George Benson’s incredible cover album called “The Other Side of Abbey Road.” I did some research into the original versions of the tunes he covered, and I was blown away by the detail in their songwriting. The first time I heard “Eleanor Rigby,” I was blown away by how funky the string arrangement was. There is such a joyful rhythmic drive accompanying such dark subject matter. Then there is the first phrase, which is five bars long. It’s just enough to trip you up when you have to solo over it. We had to mess it up a couple of times on the road before we got to the studio.
The song “Things Eternal” is a soothing tune with stunning vocals, but has a showstopping end–the message from your Grandmother is the sweetest, charming touch, which is sure to put a smile on anyone’s face. Can you share how that song unfolded?
This song came to me during a fever dream. I was in a really rough place dealing with the grief of losing so many of the extended family that helped to raise me. I felt like I was walking around in a fog most of the time. I started to have these really vivid dreams of my grandparents, great aunts and uncles, and other important people in my life. They were so real that I would many times wake up in tears. One night, after one of these dreams, I woke up and immediately started writing lyrics. I used my grandmother’s voice at the end because I believe she still speaks to me. That’s something that I don’t ever want to stop.
Then “Bird Like” is an up- tempo, swinging jazz track. When you vary the time changes in songs, and tempo, does it keep things fresh for you?
I’m always ready to play some kind of blues. I love taking the blues “upstairs” as we say. I really enjoy variation in tempo. It keeps things from being monotonous. The section that I solo over is a small extension of the intro to the tune. It gives me a chance to be conversational with my drummer David Throckmorton, so I always jump at the chance.
What other music do you listen to or play outside of jazz?
I’m a diehard fan of Brazilian music. I believe the Brazilian music to be a close cousin to jazz. The songbook is so expansive, and it easily rivals the Great American Songbook in terms of melody, harmony, and swing. The first band I played with in New York was a Brazilian group. I’ll always be a student of Brazilian music and culture. I’m also heavy into Afro-Cuban folkloric music. I find it inspiring how they were able to preserve so many of the rhythms and practices that were taken from our ancestors in the United States. I’m a huge Stevie Wonder fanatic also. I’m in the process of learning his entire book. I think I’ll be working on that for a while. Don’t get me started on James Taylor. I’m trying to learn his whole book also. I have a lot of work ahead of me.
What is your definition of tone, and how has it changed over the years?
Three words: Snap, crackle, pop. I want my notes to be coming out like Philly Joe Jones’ rimshots. That’s been a pretty constant desire over the years.
Also, do you improvise a lot? What are your thoughts on that?
If I’m not improvising, you can find me at Stewart & Calhoun (Local Akron Funeral Home). It’s an embedded part of my personality, and I’m not happy if I’m not doing it.
Love the album cover for Things Eternal. There are a lot of messages in that visual from your t-shirt to the photos around you. What was the impetus for that idea?
Shane Wynn is a brilliant photographer from Akron. She really got what I was going for. The people in the pictures around me helped a shy young kid turn into a grown man with a passion for music.
Overall, Things Eternal is a beautiful album. You explore loss and deal with tough life experiences. Was making the album therapeutic?
After losing my grandmother, my dad having a stroke three days before my son was born, and suddenly losing Joey, I was kind of existing rather than living. I started seeing a grief counselor at the recommendation of my wife, and that really turned things around for me. He draws on African spiritual practices, and he advised me to memorialize the people who were important to me and to pay attention to their voices. If I can amplify these voices through music, the sting of death, loss, and grief is a lot less powerful.
Lastly, check out a very impressive list of Dan Wilson’s go-to albums.
Something tells me you like vinyl. What are some of your all-time favorite albums?
I do dig vinyl. It’s the greatest sound quality to my ears. Not in order of preference, but here are some:
Jimmy and Wes: The Dynamic Duo
Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway
Aretha in Paris
Ella and Louis Again
Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson
Roots & Herbs – Art Blakey
Mode for Joe – Joe Henderson
All ’n All – Earth, Wind & Fire
Light as A Feather – Return to Forever
Speak No Evil – Wayne Shorter
Dan Wilson: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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