Dan Wilson

Akron’s Finest
Dan Wilson
Dan Wilson: Shane Wynn.

On Things Eternal, jazz-guitar wizard Dan Wilson fuses post-bop, spirituality, and the songs of Stevie Wonder into a satisfying musical journey. The album is a celebration of those who have passed on, but don’t get it twisted; Wilson understands that what they left behind is the greatest gift of all, and he honors them with impeccable musicality, phrasing, and inspired compositions.

What was the concept on Things Eternal?
I’m reaching a point where at the age of 40, I’m losing the people who raised me. Older family members were passing away, which was a major shock to my system. I started to appreciate what they did for me during my formative years. I was thinking about this hymn called “Hold To God’s Unchanging Hand,” and I took the main line from that: “Build your hopes on things eternal.” That was the idea behind the album.

That ties into the voicemail messages heard on the album.
I had an uncle who passed away in 1991, and I started forgetting what his voice sounded like. So, I started saving messages from my grandmother, my uncles, Joey DeFrancesco, Monty Alexander, and Christian McBride. Those voicemails are such a large part of their personalities, and I want to remember those personalities.

Joey DeFrancesco was quite a character.
He was a huge ballbuster (laughs). He was pretty unforgettable, and I wanted to celebrate that – my grandmother, as well. She was very caring and supportive. She was one of a kind.

You honor people who have passed on, but Things Eternal isn’t a sad record. It’s quite joyful.
That was important. When you lose people, you experience crippling grief, but that’s not where it stops. It’s just a step in dealing with these life changes. You realize the things those people left behind outlive their physical lives. You start to appreciate them even more.

“Sticology” really sets the tone for the record.
That’s a well-known tune on the Cleveland/Akron scene, written by Phillip K. Jones II. I told him how much I appreciated that tune and the way he put it together. He was 17 years old when he wrote it, and said it took him six months to write, piece by piece. I think he knocked it out of the park. It captures the sound of the area. Cleveland is a huge smooth jazz and funk town, but there are other elements that come together in a natural way.

Which guitar are you playing now?
The Benedetto Pat Martino signature, and I love that guitar. Joey DeFrancesco convinced Howard Paul at Benedetto to give me an endorsement deal. It’s easy for those hollowbody models to feed back, so I chose the Martino because it’s a solidbody. It’s very versatile and I like the way the neck feels. Plus, it travels well.

How about amps?
Fender Deluxe. That’s the one for me. I plug straight in. I’m not saying I’ll never use pedals, but I have no use for them right now. I love the guitar for its percussive properties, and I don’t want anything to get in the way. I was a drummer first, so I want to hear the percussive attack of the instrument.

As co-producer, how did Christian McBride inform the album?
I was on a gig with him in Las Vegas, and we talked about our favorite movies. We found out we have a lot of the same tastes. I mentioned how much I love the 1989 film Lean On Me, with Morgan Freeman. Christian knows the entire script (laughs)! I thought I was the only person in the world who knew that! Since then, it’s been a five-year text thread where we send quotes from the movie (laughs). He’s been instrumental in my musical development. He’s been a constant positive force. Seeing his artistry up close is one thing, but hanging out with him offstage has been inspiring.

Did both of you get into the weeds with the arrangements and performances?
I have relative autonomy when it comes to things like arrangements. He will give suggestions if he hears something he feels should be there. He did that on the record before this. He’ll say, “How about if you try this? Flip it and put the bass note here.” They’re little suggestions, but I take them very seriously because of his musical knowledge.

I didn’t feel the need to make this album so guitar-centric – I didn’t need to turn on the burners so much. I focused on the quality of the songs, arrangements, and writing. I’m just there to be in service of the music, but I’ll never stop be-boppin’ (laughs).

This article originally appeared in VG’s September 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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