Guitarist/Composer Dan Wilson Earns Christian McBride’s Endorsement On ‘Vessels of Wood and Earth’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Grant Green meets Wes Montgomery meets George Benson. Not quite, but that gives some idea of what you’ll hear from composer/guitarist Dan Wilson for bassist/composer Christian McBride’s new imprint Brother Mister Productions — the label’s second release.  The title, Vessels of Wood and Earth, is an abstract way of expressing that we should look beneath the shiny surface and find the taken-for-granted things that make life valuable and inspiring. Wilson and his band deliver 11 joyfully dynamic compositions extending over an hour with a mix of five originals along with familiar fare from Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Ted Daffan, as well as a spiritual touch from John Coltrane. Joined by pianist Christian Sands, bassist Marco Panascia, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, and guest vocalist Joy Brown, the guitarist brings a wide palette of originals and inventive interpretations inspired by Motown, gospel, and jazz traditions. 

The fact this is just the second artist to appear on jazz statesman Christian McBride’s label is a quite an honor that speaks volumes about Wilson’s talent. Wilson first met McBride when playing with Joey DeFrancesco and later toured and played in McBride’s trio Tip City.  Yet the bassist mostly sits out here except on the duo tracks “James” and the closer “Born to Lose,” while assuming the producer role, which because of his familiarity, likely brought a sense of comfort to Wilson when recording these sessions.

You’ll hear Wilson pick flurries of melodic lines in the opener “The Rhythm Section,” a style he credits to listening to great vocalists that his parents exposed him to growing up.  Not only that but in his teenage years, his uncle inspired his love for the music of Wes Montgomery and Jimmy Smith, some of which is evident in his cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Bird of Beauty” where Sands adds some synth to his piano to evoke a bit of Wonder’s original. “The Reconstruction Beat,” as suggested, has “Tain” busy on the kit keeping pace, or maybe even pushing it for the leader, until he fades out soloing. The title track is requisitely reflective and serious in tone and tempo, with Wilson showing the kind of restraint that belies his first three pieces. “Who Shot John” is more animated, has some vigorous exchanges between Wilson and Sands, and is packed with both rhythmic challenges and changes that the rhythm tandem of Waits and Panascia deftly handle.

The second half features mostly covers as well as a couple of vocal turns from Joy Brown. The medley, a clever pairing of Trane’s gorgeous “After the Rain” with Marvin Gaye’s “Save the Children” features Brown singing passionately in the Gaye portion for a nice touch as Wilson provides cushion-like chords until he delivers an emphatic bluesy solo. These emotions call for another Gaye classic, “Inner City Blues,” as Brown returns and Sands moves to the organ with the band developing a strutting groove before Brown enters, brought to a simmer for the bass solo that builds to an exciting Wilson solo and a strong climax with Brown. “Juneteenth” is a funky original, a nice blend of Benson-like melody and blues in Wilson’s approach. 

The standard “Cry Me a River” is slowed to a ballad, featuring Brown in a sultry, bluesy turn, somewhat evoking Esther Phillips, accompanied at first only by Wilson before the band adds their subtle support. Wilson’s original, “James” has him weaving melodic lines beautifully with McBride in duet with some passages evoking Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time Get to Phoenix’’ and several other notable phrases as the two trade verses. McBride takes his own lyrical spin and the two just seem to be having a grand time. Ted Daffan’s “Born to Lose,” long associated with Ray Charles, closes, imbued by McBride’s bowed bass. This is a delectable mix of jazz, soul, and R&B; it’s no wonder why Wilson has McBride’s endorsement.

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