Anthony Wilson is hardly the first jazz musician to reinvent his sound, but his evolution from internationally esteemed guitar maestro to singer/songwriter on his new album “Frogtown” (Goat Hill Recordings) is likely to catch many of his fans by surprise.
The son of the late, legendary Los Angeles arranger, composer and bandleader Gerald Wilson, he first made his mark as a composer with a series of brilliant nonet sessions in the late 1990s. He’s covered a lot of ground since then, putting his own stamp on the Hammond B-3 organ format, collaborating with the great Brazilian guitarist/composer Chico Pinheiro, and delivering elegantly sculpted solos for recordings by the likes of Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson, Barbra Streisand and Aaron Neville.
He’s spent the past 15 years touring and recording with Diana Krall, and somewhere along the line started to feel that he needed to write his own songs. On “Frogtown” his songwriting is distinguished by the same kind of craftsmanship that marked his jazz composing, with a spacious but meticulous sound that sometimes brings to mind Neil Young or James Taylor. He recruited a stellar cast of players, including drummers Mike Chamberlain and Jim Keltner, violinist Petra Haden, pianist/keyboardist Patrick Warren and bassist Mike Elizondo (who also produced the album).
The album alternates between pieces featuring Wilson’s vocals and instrumental tracks, which often seem to expand or comment on the previous or following lyric. The plaintive opening anthem “She Won’t Look Back" gives way to the optimistically jaunty title track like a candle lit in the dusk. The earnestly yearning ballad “Your Footprints,” which features saxophone legend Charles Lloyd, flows into Wilson's playful arrangement of the traditional Italian song “Occhi di Bambola,” the album’s only cover.
At first, it seemed strange that he didn’t draw on the extraordinary vocal talents of Petra Haden. Everyone else seems to these days (check out her recent work with guitarist Bill Frisell, singer/songwriter Jesse Harris, and David Byrne). But the deeper I ventured into “Frogtown,” the more his voice grew on me. Wilson explores a lot of interesting emotional territory, with a decidedly Steely Danian vein of resigned desperation (or is it desperate resignation?) that comes through most clearly on the deceptively lulling “Arcadia,” which sketches a suburban idyll slowly curdling with the concluding couplet “Now they’ve come for me/I’ll go quietly.”
If “Frogtown” represents a left turn for Wilson, Oakland vocalist Terrie Odabi’s debut album “My Blue Soul” is the culmination of a decade-long quest. Over the years she’s sung jazz and standards with the great Bay Area saxophonist Jules Broussard and performed world music with the pioneering percussionist Carolyn Brandy. Her abundant soul and improvisational prowess has made her a crucial contributor to trombonist Steve Turré’s annual Rahsaan Roland Kirk celebration at San Jose’s Café Stritch (which returns on Aug. 3-7).
But after years of feeling not quite at home in jazz and R&B settings she decided to try out the Bay Area blues scene, and now she’s selling out just about every show. More than a powerhouse vocalist with a velvet sledgehammer delivery, she’s a savvy songwriter who draws on an unusually deep well of experience. She covers a few classics on "My Blue Soul," like Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain,” and the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” but I think some of the best tunes are hers, like the sleek and grooving declaration of independence “Live My Life” featuring guitarist Khalil Doak-Anthony, organist Lorenzo Hawkins, and drummer Derrick Martin.
I particularly love the opening track “Gentrification Blues.” I spoke with Odabi last month for a KQED Arts story about musicians and political activism, and she said that until now she’d kept her politics out of her music. But as an Oakland native she felt she couldn’t ignore the changes going on. This song could be an anthem for the movement to preserve Oakland’s African-American culture. But then “My Blue Soul” is almost a manifesto that makes an incontrovertible case for the enduring power of traditional black forms. Odabi may be a relative newcomer to the scene. Her songs tap into the music's deepest wellsprings, and this album should cement her status as Bay Area blues royalty