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The Magic Touch of Dan Wilson



Jazz Guitar Today contributor Wayne Goins interviews Grammy-nominated and world-class guitarist Dan Wilson.

Dan Wilson is the man with the magic touch. Highly endorsed by none other than Pat Metheny, Wilson’s reputation as a first-rate jazz guitarist has permeated the walls of the elite in the upper echelon of jazz guitar. This Grammy-nominated artist has already cemented his place as a world-class player, and his recent exploits show that he has no plans of slowing down.

JGT: You’re from Cleveland, and not a big NYC dweller, correct?

DW: I’m a full-blown Akronite. Akron, Ohio is my birthplace and current place of residence.

JGT: You have a well-known reputation as one who has a strong urban music sensibility as an “outdoorsman” — you’d rather be hunting than hanging out in the city? 

DW: Yeah man, I’ve been hunting since I was 8 years old. It’s a long tradition in my dad’s family since right after slavery beginning with my great-grandfather. Coincidentally, it was a long-standing tradition in the church where I grew up, which is where I also learned to play music. Every other year, we would have a wild game dinner in April accompanied by a musical program.

JGT: Let’s discuss your most recent album, Vessels of Wood and Earth on Christian McBride’s label, Brother Mister?

DW: The title came about from a scripture in the Bible that states, “In a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and earth.” I took this to mean that it’s not the shiny exterior things that hold up the house, but rather the things that are unseen. I viewed this as a useful metaphor for a band or a musical concept. Many people tend to focus on the person out front, but the band is what holds up the music. 

JGT: You’ve worked with some of the biggest names in the business—Christian McBride, Joey de Francesco, among others—how does that feel to be in such rare air?

DW: I’m very thankful to have worked with these musicians. Monty Alexander, Jimmy Cobb (R.I.P.), Russell Malone, Les McCann, Lewis Nash, John Clayton, Terri Lynne Carrington, Rene Marie, Sean Jones, & Nicholas Payton have all left a profound impact on me. There are things that you learn from people like these that you can’t learn any other place than a bandstand.

JGT: Project Freedom was nominated for a Grammy—how did that feel to u?

DW: I remember having a sense of bewilderment. I remember being really excited, but mostly bewildered. I don’t know what goes into a Grammy nomination or a Grammy award win. All I knew is that record captured about 10% of what that band did live on the bandstand. Some nights I would have to pinch myself to make sure what I was hearing was real.

JGT: You just joined McBride in the “Tip City” band; tell us about that…

DW: I joined McBride’s band in about 2017. I had been working with Joey [deFrancesco] for about 2 or 3 years at that point. I was a huge fan of McBride. There are several accounts of how McBride had heard about me. One of those is from Terri Pontremoli, the Tri-C Jazz Festival director. She set up a duo gig for us during one of McBride’s Artist-In-Residency gigs in Cleveland. We played three tunes, and there was instant chemistry. On the other hand, Pat Metheny told me that he bugged McBride for like three years to hire me. That was shocking because I didn’t know Pat knew I existed. Either way, it has been a blessing.

JGT: Tell us about the Dan, Cliff Barnes, and Dave Throckmorton group—the ‘pandemic’ band?

DW: The cats! I love these guys. I’ve known cliff and Dave (we call him Throck) for about 10 or 11 years. I went to school with Cliff at Youngstown State University when I was getting my Masters. He was the best musician in that building. I played a gig with him, and he kicked my behind. He’s one of the most unique players I’ve ever come across. The same goes for Throck. We first played together about 7 years ago in Pittsburgh at a joint called the Thunderbird Cafe. There was a rare chemistry that you just don’t find around the corner. I’m planning on recording that group for my next Mack Avenue project.

JGT: The August 27 video in 2016 with you and Chris Potter was incredible.

DW: Chris is a musical force of nature. He’s able to pull things from the music that you aren’t aware even exists. It was an honor and a frightening privilege to share the stage with him.

JGT: Do you do any college teaching?

DW: Right now, I’m only doing all my teaching through my website at

JGT: I loved your performance with Van Morrison for the concert on Netflix, which is where I first saw you…I was like, DAMN—who is this guy???

DW: The Van recordings and gigs were definitely memorable experiences. It’s really the only pop gig I’ve ever been on, and I remember feeling anxious to open up like we were used to doing on Joey’s gig. It was a good lesson in restraint. I’ll never forget starting “Into The Mystic” on Van’s guitar. It was really something to see the people in the front row showing such emotion.

JGT: I watched your video of the 2016 Wes Montgomery Guitar contest playing “My Shining Hour”—I hear a lot of ‘GB’ (George Benson) in you—yes?

DW: Absolutely. Wes was my entrance into jazz, but George really got a hold of me. I think he’s the greatest to ever pick up the instrument. Over the years, it’s been great to connect with him and tell him that to his face.

JGT: Who is Jonah Pearson? I mean, wow—the December 2013 YouTube video is just ridiculous—OMG!

DW: Interesting thing about the church I grew up in. I can name about 30-40 great guitar players offhand going back to the ‘40s and ‘50s. Jonah was one of the guitar players that came up in my generation. We started playing around the same time. He started off as a really gifted drummer. When he went to guitar, he took off like a rocket. He’s from Atlanta, so I would only hear him about once a year for the annual church Convocation. I remember being really impressed at how quickly he got good. If you get to know him, you can immediately see how someone that intelligent could get that good really fast. That particular video took place at the church headquarters in Coshocton, Ohio on the pavilion outside of the church. I’d love to get the rest of the video because a couple of the guys standing in the background sat down and played and sounded amazing.

JGT: Let’s talk about living/working in Cleveland—what kinds of experiences have you had that made a major impact on your life that might be an advantage being there over being in NYC?

DW: It’s great to have the opportunity to travel, but I like coming home to peace and quiet. The Akron/Cleveland scene also enjoys a sense of community that is rare in bigger cities. Affordable housing is also something I enjoy. But, having said that, New York has a vibe that can’t be found anywhere else. That’s why I love to visit.

JGT: Who were some of your biggest influences in person? On record?

DW: My parents, grandparents, and extended family are my biggest influences. They created an atmosphere that allowed me to develop my craft and evolve as a person, and for that, I’m eternally indebted to them. Arthur Lee Gale—the musician who revolutionized guitar in the church that I grew up in—is a huge influence. I used to have cassettes of him that I would never leave the house without. On record, there’s Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Joe Henderson, and Kenny Kirkland.

JGT: You seem like such a natural player—your technique is so smooth and effortless—like George (Benson)—exactly how do you develop that? 

DW: The guitar is definitely my voice, but I played every day for about 8 hours from the age of 15 to 19. The constant reinforcement of playing in three services per week really keeps you in shape. 

JGT: What do you work on when you practice?

DW: I mainly work on building repertoire. I’ve found that most of the technical practice is cool, but if it’s not applied to songs, it’s devoid of context.

JGT: Your single note playing is immaculate, but I don’t hear you playing with a lot of octaves like Wes—is that deliberate?

DW: I use octaves every once in a while, but I used to play them all the time. There is a recording of me when I was 18 playing in church quoting Wes’s solo on “Down By The Riverside.” I used to get a stern talking to about that many times.

JGT: Let’s talk equipment—what guitars, amps, pedals are you into? You’re a big Benedetto dude, yes?

DW: I’m the worst when it comes to equipment. I just plug it in and hope for the best. I have been fortunate enough to be able to endorse Benedetto guitars. They make some amazing instruments. For an amp, I usually go through a Fender Deluxe. I like the natural breakup.

JGT: What record label/deals do you have?

DW: I’m on Christian McBride’s imprint on Mack Avenue called Brother Mister.

JGT: Any big gigs on the horizon?

DW: I’m in the process of setting up some dates with Lewis Nash in Arizona. We played together in Vail, Colorado this past September and it was like being hit with a lightning bolt. I’m dying to do it again.

JGT: And finally, any advice you have for young students aspiring to be on your level?

DW: Think about a gig you could see yourself on, and learn that book. When you go see that musician live, go up to them after the show and say, “I know your book.” That’s bound to have an effect on the artist you’re speaking to.

JGT: Thanks so much for spending time with our readers and sharing your story.

DW: My pleasure, and thanks for the opportunity, I really enjoyed it!

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