With his new album, Things Eternal, guitarist Dan Wilson gathers hope and inspiration from ancestral wisdom, dedicated to the enduring quality of the human spirit.
Due out May 19, 2023 via Brother Mister Productions/Mack Avenue Music Group, Wilson has crafted an impeccable statement for the world to take notice.
Guitarist Dan Wilson has never lost sight of the people and communities that have nurtured him along his journey. The warmth and wisdom passed down through his close-knit family; the musical mentorship embedded in the mission of the gospel church that awakened his passion for music; the enduring influence of forebears from Charlie Christian to Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass to George Benson; and the opportunities granted by modern masters like Joey DeFrancesco and Christian McBride, who have recognized and encouraged his soulful gifts.
On his fourth album as a leader, Things Eternal, Wilson takes stock of the lessons learned from each of those rich sources, ensuring that their legacy lives on through him even as some of them pass on. In recent years the guitarist has lost both of his grandparents along with one of his key mentors, the legendary organist Joey DeFrancesco, whose sudden death in 2022 was mourned throughout the jazz world. Then his father suffered a massive stroke just three days before the birth of the guitarist’s second child; he’s on the mend, but it’s been an arduous path. All this, of course, in the midst of a global pandemic.
“This album is centered around the shock of losing a lot of people that were central to my upbringing,” Wilson says. “I’ve been seeing a grief counselor who draws on African religion and spirituality, and he suggested creating a shrine to memorialize some of the people that I’ve lost. In a way, that’s what this album is, and it’s been therapeutic.”
The organist’s voice, captured in a gently teasing voicemail, opens Things Eternal; Wilson’s grandmother also makes a voicemail appearance later on the album. The guitarist’s prescient habit of saving messages means that these beloved figures continue to speak to him, though for Wilson the voices of the past are never far from his mind. In part that’s because he’s stayed rooted in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, even as he’s increasingly drawn away by a thriving career that’s led to opportunities to share the stage with greats like Russell Malone, David Sanborn, Dave Stryker, Les McCann, René Marie, Eric Marienthal and Jeff Hamilton.
Like many a jazz musician before him, Wilson honed his skills in the church. “This wasn’t your average gospel church where cats are just chicken-picking,” he explains. “The music in the church that I grew up in is entirely driven by guitar. I can name thirty great guitarists offhand, generations of players dating back to the forties and fifties. I had never heard of Grant Green or Wes Montgomery or George Benson, but their indirect influence was coming to me through the guys I listened to in church.”
Though playing in the secular jazz realm was frowned upon, Wilson had little choice once a jazz-loving uncle widened his musical horizons. “He played me The Dynamic Duo by Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery,” he remembers. “I heard them play ‘Down by the Riverside’ and from that moment I knew this was what I wanted to do for a living.”
From his home base in Akron, Wilson became a constant presence on the scenes in both Pittsburgh and Cleveland. He came to DeFrancesco’s attention in 2014 via the drummer Carmen Intorre, Jr., whose long tenure with Pat Martino speaks to his taste in guitarists. Wilson received an email shortly after, inviting him to join DeFrancesco at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café outside Michigan.
“From note one it was like somebody lit a fire,” Wilson recalls. “Joey asked me to join his band the next year and he took us all over the world. We became close and went through all the things that siblings do – we had disagreements, we had laughs, we had emotional moments. But the thing I most appreciated was his advocacy for us. He introduced us to all of our favorite musicians and said, ‘These are my cats. They’re some bad dudes.’ We could have just been nameless, faceless sidemen, but he really helped to put us on the scene.”
In a more immediate sense, Wilson’s other chief mentor, bass giant (and DeFrancesco’s lifelong friend) Christian McBride was on hand to co-produce Things Eternal. The album is Wilson’s second release through Brother Mister Productions, McBride’s imprint under the Mack Avenue Music Group umbrella, following 2021’s Vessels of Wood and Earth. At the recommendation of no less a six-string authority than Pat Metheny, McBride enlisted Wilson for his trio Tip City, alongside fellow next-generation star Emmet Cohen on piano.
“I always trust Christian’s direction because he’s such a master musician,” Wilson says. “But he doesn’t micromanage. He lets you get your own vision across, but he’ll inject some wisdom as needed. Recording sessions can be nerve wracking – you have to deliver under duress. It’s never like that with Christian. This session was like a party.”
Both omnivorous musicians whose tastes ranged not only the full spectrum of jazz but influences from soul, pop, funk, R&B, rock and beyond, DeFrancesco and McBride undoubtedly recognized a similar spirit in Wilson. His wide-ranging tastes are reflected on the artfully curated repertoire for Things Eternal, which includes songs by The Beatles, Stevie Wonder and Sting alongside jazz classics by the likes of McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Michael Brecker and Herbie Hancock, as well as a song by hometown favorite Phillip K. Jones II.
The album’s two Wilson originals both reflect on its central theme in unique ways. “Since a Hatchet Was a Hammer” was a phrase he heard from his then 97-year-old Aunt Mary, who he says was “outspoken for nearly a century.” Her undimmed spirit and keen insight are both reflected in the guitarist’s determined tribute. The title track was inspired by a vivid fever dream that Wilson had shortly after losing his grandmother and features wistful lyrics sung by Jessica Yafanaro over Glenn Zaleski’s dreamlike Fender Rhodes.
The title of Things Eternal is extracted from the hymn “Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand,” in which Wilson found solace during these trying times. “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.”
Dan Wilson · Things Eternal
Brother Mister Productions · Release Date: May 19, 2023 (CD + Digital)
For more information on Dan Wilson please visit: danwilsonguitar.com