By Malcolm X Abram
February 13, 2015
On Wednesday night, Akron’s Blu Jazz+ will welcome celebrated contemporary jazz player Joey DeFrancesco and his trio.
DeFrancesco is widely acknowledged as one of the best jazz organists alive. His resume as a sideman includes recording and/or performing with Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Bette Midler, David Sanborn, Arturo Sandoval, John McLaughlin, Grover Washington Jr., George Benson and John Scofield, to name but a few.
He is also a respected solo artist and bandleader who has recorded more than 30 albums under his own name and regularly wins DownBeat magazine’s readers poll.
For his first show in Akron, DeFrancesco, who was inspired to learn trumpet after his stint with Davis, is bringing his new organ trio, which features two musicians with Northeast Ohio connections. Drummer Jason Brown is a graduate of Oberlin College, while guitarist Dan Wilson is a proud Akronite who has been a fixture on the local jazz scene for several years.
For Wilson, 30, who also maintains a phalanx of local guitar students, this is his first extensive tour as a sideman, and it’s already taken the up-and-coming guitarist to the other side of the country and on a jazz cruise packed with legends and respected players whom Wilson grew up admiring.
While pop musicians tend to aspire to solo superstardom, for a young jazz musician, touring as a sideman with an acknowledged master is great woodshedding, and a way to network and meet other musicians.
He’s been embraced by the veterans he’s met, but Wilson admits to occasional moments of being starstruck. On his first gig with DeFrancesco last month in Tucson, Wilson got to hang with 86-year-old drum legend Jimmy Cobb, who played on quintessential albums including Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps and Wes Montgomery’s Smokin’ at the Half-Note.
“Man, I was like, what the heck is happening,” Wilson said from his area home on a rare day off.
“The dude is 86 years old, he’s a real quiet, humble guy and you have to pry the stories out of him, but man, he had a million of ’em,” Wilson said, noting that he got several good tales about his guitar hero, Wes Montgomery, with whom Cobb toured for a few years.
Wilson also enjoyed working the jazz cruise where his new boss graciously introduced the young man to a growing group of peers, including trumpeter Randy Brecker, singer/pianist Freddie Cole, and ex-Miles Davis bassist/producer Marcus Miller, with whom Wilson played basketball every morning.
“It was nice getting to meet all these people. Joey’s taking me around and introducing me to a lot of cats and [guitarist] Russell Malone was taking me around, saying ‘Have you heard this young man? He can play,’ and I’m just a little bit starstruck,” Wilson said.
But in keeping with the jazz tradition of helping and embracing young players, Wilson said he was treated as a peer. “They were like, ‘hey, you’re that guitar player with Joey D, you sound great,’ and I was like ‘I sound what?! Aw … really?!’
“It was a really humbling experience to be with all that music that was on the ship,” he said, noting that as soon as his work was done, he’d pack up and head out to watch other musicians.
But while meeting legends and hearing their stories has kept his eyes a bit wider than usual, Wilson said any nerves about performing in DeFrancesco’s band quickly dissipated during that first gig.
“I was a little bit nervous. ‘Am I playing my solos too long? Am I playing too much?’ And after a while it just turned into playing music. Everything I played, he picked it up and vice versa; we were playing off each other, and Jason, the drummer, is incredible, and the group is like a living organism,” Wilson said.
This spring, DeFrancesco will take Wilson to Sweden, Italy, Austria and Germany, and besides the gigs, the guitarist has another goal for the trek: “All these Scandinavian countries, and I’ve never been to Italy. So I plan on eating. That’s my plan, to see what type of food I can find.”
But in addition to his self-proclaimed gastronomic tour through Europe, the trio will also be recording later this year for a possible album, and DeFrancesco has asked Wilson to submit several of his original tunes for the band.
“That’s rare. There are so many big name artists who are like ‘my tunes, my charts, my gig, my spotlight,’ but Joey’s secure. He knows he’s a bad dude,” Wilson said.
For Wilson, playing and touring with DeFrancesco is the next step in a blossoming career as a successful, working jazz musician.
“You feel like you’re fulfilling your purpose. I feel like I’ve been practicing for this gig since I started playing guitar. This gig fits like a glove,” Wilson said. “Joey’s a really generous bandleader and he’s real cool to hang out with. He knows my family, my family loves him and this group is the group.”