Breaking new ground, Anthony Wilson's new album, “Frogtown,” is a collection of landscapes, still-lifes, portraits — sketched in words and music.
Some territories can’t be easily accessed via the usual paths or means. A set of directions, well-worn map or trusted formula won’t get you to the unexpected. The tried and true will only tip you toward what you already know.
For the last few years, Anthony Wilson had been trying to get somewhere else — someplace just beyond the borders of his imagination. “I felt this building impatience with the structures we jazz musicians commonly use in performance, especially when songs end up including too much soloing. It’s so easy for things to get flabby and unfocused.” He’d reached a juncture creatively. “Suddenly, I found myself most interested in finding a way of telling musical stories.”
Sharpening that focus meant more than a simple reframing, it would require rethinking the very path into a composition. Wilson saw it as a puzzle of scale, shape and expectations. "For so long, my practice of composition revolved around the idea of balancing written material with improvised performance, which certainly produced a lot of interesting music, but it was a quite conceptual way of going about things. And even my usual ways, which aren’t typical to all jazz composers, weren’t getting me there. They weren’t getting me to the story,” he explains.
The question now was: How?
Unpinning previous expectations and pulling away from known byways required that he start with a set of questions: “What was extraneous? What needed to go? And, who could I work with to help me get there?"
“In jazz,” he explains, "the song — even a strong song — is a vehicle to get you to the improvisation. The heart of the music is improvisation and you use the song to get there. At its worst, a song just becomes an excuse for the improvisation, and at its best, it can help better focus the improviser.” Wilson began to toy with a notion: What if the improvising had to deliver the essence of the song? Not just showboating or embellishment, but rather, these flourishes or digressions would move the song's narrative forward, adding context and backstory.
He also kept thinking about the music that pulled him in as a young listener, “I really grew up listening to songs. Instrumental songs and songs with words. All kinds. Folk songs, country songs, blues and pop songs, all telling stories so elegantly. And I started realizing what it would mean for me personally to simplify things to the point where the end result of my writing was songs. And then it became obvious that some of these songs would necessarily have lyrics. What if I wrote them?”
What more, he supposed, at a crucial moment: “What if I sang them?”
Frogtown — a haunting collection of songs, moods and meditations — is Anthony Wilson’s vivid realization of a decades-long desire to tell textured and evocative sonic stories. The recording is the result of a series of far-afield journeys — both inside and out; professional and personal.
Growing up in Los Angeles, he absorbed a wash of diverse music: his mother Anita had an eclectic ear tuned across genres — pop, folk, world and jazz. His father, the late great jazz composer and bandleader Gerald Wilson, found a home writing music that combined American blues and modern jazz with the shades and nuances of other musical cultures. L.A. radio of the 60s and 70s — singer-songwriters like Harry Nilsson, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen — also played in that soundscape mix. Wilson was particularly drawn to the 1970’s Warner Brothers Records sound, on albums produced by Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman, by artists such as James Taylor, Randy Newman and Rickie Lee Jones. In recent years, Ry Cooder, also a part of that latter group of artists, has been a benchmark influence.
The goods were at his fingertips. Integrating it all, however, and finding the balance, took time. The key was trusting his intuition — simultaneously peeling away and reaching for more. The idea, says Wilson, was to create “settings that might evoke a distinct world and feeling."
“I gave myself little assignments,” he recalls. In so doing, he began paying close attention to sense-of-place — collecting observations or interactions, the very suggestion of environments: "I’d get enough of an image and setting to make a little story.” Next, fragments of vignettes began to materialize — a sketched out verse, a chorus — the skeleton of a piece. Then he’d ask himself: “Could this be a song?”
“She Won’t Look Back” — the seed of which developed from a chance, eavesdropped moment — came about in this way, while on tour in Utah.
Within live settings, the music and musicians began to coalesce. Wilson found easy interplay with familiar collaborators, legendary rock drummer Jim Keltner and organist Larry Goldings (with whom he had recorded “Jack of Hearts” back in 2009). And as a trio, in both rehearsal and performance at 2013’s Monterey Jazz Festival, “The Geranium” — one of the first of these experiments — began to find its shape. Gradually, more players arrived who could provide the right sensibility, shadings, and colors. “I really liked hearing how the songs sounded with different people from different backgrounds, because it gave me a sense of where the songs could go — and where they could go wrong.”
In time, Wilson was pulled toward diverse sources of inspiration. An off-kilter stroll through a singular, off-the-beaten track L.A. neighborhood became “Frogtown”; a peek behind sleepy suburban SoCal facades reveals the messy detritus of a failed con man’s life in “Arcadia”. Interspersed are tone poems — instrumentals that bloom then collapse into themselves. Two songs take their names from short stories of Franz Kafka (“The Cares of a Family Man”) and Flannery O’Connor (“The Geranium”). “Some of the instrumentals,” says Wilson, “are pieces that simply reflect or translate a mood. I love short stories, because they can open up so completely in such a compressed time. You don’t have to know everything about a character, but you get just enough, and you’re totally there.”
Shows including violinist Petra Haden, drummer Matt Chamberlain, and keyboardist Patrick Warren added personal and distinctive contours to the music's evolving sound. “Patrick or Petra, for instance, might add a little flourish on piano or violin that changes everything, but doesn’t take you out of the music. You don’t hear it and go: ‘Oh, what a cool run!’ It simply has the effect where you sense a subtle but real energy shift. All the musicians on this recording do that habitually. They are all born improvisers who stay highly attuned to the nature of the song.”
Around the same time these live shows began to gel, Wilson played a surf-shop gig put together by guitarist Blake Mills in Venice Beach. Also sitting in that evening was record producer and bassist Mike Elizondo, with whom Wilson had collaborated decades earlier. Elizondo began participating in Wilson's Los Angeles shows, and their chance reconnection supplied the very component needed for a critical leap: a way to construct and tailor these songs in the studio and outside of a traditional jazz format. Elizondo ended up providing not just the studio but his own expertise — stepping in as the album's producer. “I told Mike that the songs felt ready to record but I didn’t know how to utilize the studio to make it happen. Each song needed its own sonic identity. As you can hear, that's something he's really good at.”
Recorded in sessions spanning from Summer 2014 through early 2015 -- Frogtown reflects the expanse of Wilson's multilayered creative wayfaring — through regions of thought, genre and style. As well, it opened up space to explore untrammeled interior territory — subject matter, that before now, he hadn’t had access to. At the album’s emotional center is a country-tinged remembrance, “Our Affair,” which explores the tender underpinnings of Wilson’s parents complex relationship. “As I watched my father grow very old and listened to stories he told me about his early life and his time with my mother, translating those things into a song filled a very personal need in me. But I hope anyone can recognize the feeling of a powerful love that stays vivid and outlives all the external factors that threaten to kill it.”
Also tapping deep into that same emotional channel is “Your Footprints.” Co-written with songwriter Dan Wilson the composition explores the complex properties of legacy. “We wanted to do a song about finding your path through someone else’s. Staying connected with someone after they are gone,” he explains. “And while that song is really a simple, repeated progression — with a persistent eighth-note rhythm — it has so many layers.” Those are evidenced in the song's spare lyrics, metaphors and allusions, as well as its instrumental fabric, in which saxophonist Charles Lloyd, the iconic jazz master, lends both playfulness and gravitas. “During the session, Charles told us of his early days in L.A., sitting in my father’s orchestra, with his peers Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy and Don Cherry, so to have him adds a meaningful connection. I love that the ‘footprints’ compose a melody to illuminate the way. Following footsteps, here, is no burden.” he reflects. "Charles brought so much — grain, soil and earth — to that piece."
Frogtown wanders into all those places — forgotten or hidden; destinations tucked away in the city, but also feelings that linger within our own emotional landscapes.
For all of Wilson's initial frustration with form, “I don’t feel like this in any way is a jazz identity crisis,” he explains. “Jazz is in my DNA. I feel a natural pull towards an oblique harmony, an unorthodox bridge, or a surprising instrumental section. But these days I’m learning to seek a simpler solution so as not to distract from the essence of a song." This roundabout, off-road journey has been more about a sense of integration, an artist finding a way to gather and connect all his influences. "It’s like there is a doorway into all of this through jazz. But it opens up to a much wider array of available colors and textures, and reveals something much more personal.”
Standing back, listening to the expanse, he reflects, “I feel as if I’m closer to making the kind of music that first inspired me, that drew me in as both a musician and a listener. Now, finally, I think I’m closing in on the ballpark.”
— Lynell George
Produced by Mike Elizondo.
All songs written by Anthony Wilson, except "Your Footprints," by Dan Wilson & Anthony Wilson, and "Occhi di Bambola," traditional, arranged by Anthony Wilson.
Anthony Wilson, all guitars and vocals; Mike Elizondo, bass & moog bass; Petra Haden, violin; Patrick Warren, keyboards; Jim Keltner, drums and percussion (tracks 1, 2, 5, 9, 10, & 12); Matt Chamberlain, drums and percussion (tracks 3 - 8, & 11); Charles Lloyd, tenor saxophone on "Your Footprints"; Josh Nelson, piano on "The Geranium" and "Silver and Flint"; Jesse Harris, harmonica on "Arcadia"; Bob Reynolds, tenor saxophone; Dan Rosenboom, trumpet; Adam Schroeder, baritone saxophone & bass clarinet.