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Six years ago, in 2015, I had the honor of being on a panel of judges for the first Wes Montgomery International Guitar Competition. While the five finalists who played that October day, backed by Pat Martino’s organ trio of Hammond B-3 ace Pat Bianchi and drummer Carmen Intorre, were all very accomplished young players with bright futures ahead of them, two stood out from the pack. One was a rising star from Akron, Ohio named Dan Wilson, who impressed with his George Benson-esque single note flurries and deep blues feel. The other, a guitarist from Naples, Italy named Pasquale Grasso, stunned the judges (myself, Pat Martino, Todd Barkan, WBGO’s Gary Walker, George Klabin of Resonance Records and Robert Montgomery of the Wes Montgomery estate) with his sheer speed and fluency, precise articulation and sophisticated eloquence on the instrument, combining aspects of Joe Pass and Bud Powell into one formidable, unforgettable six-string voice.
Both exceptional six-stringers have since gone on to develop substantial careers — Wilson as a sideman with organist Joey DeFrancesco’s soul-jazz band The People (documented on the 2017 Mack Avenue Project Freedom) and with bassist Christian McBride’s Tip City Trio before being signed by Mack Avenue Records; Grasso with a Sony Masterworks digital only EP series that kicked off in 2019 and showcases his incredible solo guitar chops. No less an authority than guitar maestro Pat Metheny has called Grasso, “The most significant new guy I’ve heard in many, many years.”
Both players present stunning cases for their six-string primacy on recent releases. Grasso’s Solo Ballads on Sony Masterworks finds him delivering with the kind of impeccable virtuosity that has become his calling card on romantic chestnuts like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Embraceable You,” and a particularly intimate rendition of “When I Fall in Love,” the tender Victor Young-Edward Heyman ballad popularized by Nat Cole on his 1957 album, Love is the Thing. “I’ve always been a romantic,” said Grasso. “I’m a Southern Italian, and I grew up watching my parents, who have been in love for more than forty years. That song is beautiful, and it reminds me of what it means to be in love.”
Wilson’s third album as a leader, Vessels of Wood and Earth on Christian McBride’s Brother Mister/Mack Avenue imprint, showcases his incendiary single note flights on numbers like “The Rhythm Section” and the swinging “The Reconstruction Beat,” both highlighting outstanding contributions from pianist Christian Sands, bassist Marco Panascia and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. Wilson noted that his ability to effortlessly burn up and down the fretboard of his ax came quite naturally.
[caption id="attachment_38350" align="alignleft" width="300"] Dan Wilson (Photo: Courtesy the artist)[/caption]
“Coming up in the church, I could always play single note stuff. But I had a lot of people kind of pull my coattail early on in the game. I remember them saying, ‘Brother Wilson, we’re glad you can play these single lines real fast but they’re all starting to run together. It kind of sounds like you’re playing patterns.’ And they said it with my best interests in mind. So I took that advice to heart and just began realizing that maybe speed wasn’t the only thing I could do. I’d listen to guys like Russell Malone, who has been a very important mentor for me, and hear how he would play behind singers like Diana Krall. That really made a big impression on me. You can hear kind of a whole orchestra in his hands. So I began to develop an appreciation for ballad playing and just using the instrument more like a team player.”
Wilson balances those fleet-fingered numbers with two timely message songs in Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” and “Save the Children,” the latter grafted onto a stirring intro of John Coltrane’s “After the Rain.” He lends a subtle touch of reharmonization to Stevie Wonder’s “Bird of Beauty,” then delves into an intimate duet reading of “Cry Me a River” with the soulful, gospel-influenced vocalist Joy Brown. “She came up in the church too so we automatically clicked,” he said of his partner on that bluesy jazz standard made famous by Julie London’s 1955 recording. “I really feel something when I hear her sing.”
Wilson performs two other duets on Vessels of Wood and Earth, joining bassist-producer McBride on Pat Metheny’s buoyant “James” and also on the Ted Daffan country classic, “Born To Lose,” a tune made famous by Ray Charles on his 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. You can hear McBride say in the studio following that loping lament: “Brings a little tear to the eye.”
The guitarist flaunts his impeccable, Pat Martino-esque picking technique on “Who Shot John,” an original tune that was heavily inspired by bassist Dave Holland. “Dave had a huge influence on just how I hear music and arrange and hear different time signatures,” he explained. “That’s all completely attributed to Dave Holland. During my college years -- my undergrad and my grad school years -- I listened to those Dave Holland Quintet records daily for about six years straight, learned his repertoire and just really took that in. And it kind of came out here.”
Wilson explained the significance of the album’s title. “It comes from bible scripture: ‘In a great house there’s not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and earth.’ And I took that to mean a lot of times we see the shiny exterior and that’s where our attention is focused, but it’s really the less visible things that are really making the house stand. And I feel like that in music. It’s really all about the foundation, the rhythm section.
“Take any great band -- James Brown’s band, for instance,” he continued. “We saw his great dance moves, he was funky and all, but he had a rhythm section of Clyde Stubblefield and Bootsy Collins holding these grooves down for like 15 minutes for a song, and that’s no small feat. And that’s one of the things I’ve always appreciated about music. You can go to any jam session in New York -- I’m thinking like Small’s or the now-defunct Cleopatra’s Needle -- and there will be five or six tenor players in a line, each of them wanting to take 20 courses on ‘Impressions.’ So the rhythm section just gets worked to death in that situation, and they’re often the last to take a solo. So I really wanted to write from that perspective on this album. I was looking to highlight sections of the band that are rarely featured, so there were a lot of bass features and a lot of drum features.”
But make no mistake, Wilson is still burning with jaw-drop facility throughout Vessels of Wood and Earth.