Listening to Jonathan Wilson’s epic new album, “Fanfare,” is like reading a dense novel full of literary allusions. Every track is packed with references to the music he loves: The Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Jackson Browne, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. It’s a fine line to walk — paying homage to your musical heroes without coming off like a lesser imitation.
“That can happen,” Wilson says. In fact, one song, “Illumination,” features a distorted, slow-burning guitar progression that sounds suspiciously similar to Neil Young’s “Danger Bird.” “Somebody in the band said it sounded like that tune and I went back and listened to it and said, ‘Oh f—, it does,’” Wilson says. Ultimately, though, the final version “blossomed into its own thing.”
For “Fanfare,” the veteran producer, session musician and singer-songwriter had the benefit of playing with some of the very heroes who inspired the record: Browne, David Crosby and Graham Nash are among the long list of players who sat in on the sessions.
Worth the ‘Fanfare’
Befitting Wilson’s background as a producer and composer, the first three minutes of “Fanfare’s” album-opening title track are entirely instrumental — a grandiose, sweeping piano-driven segment with strings arranged by Wilco’s Patrick Sansone. At seven minutes long, the track is a mission statement of sorts for the 13-song, 78-minute album that spans genres and song structures (only three tracks are less than five minutes; most feature lengthy solos and spacey jam sections).
Wilson composed the basic tracks for “Fanfare” on a rented Steinway grand piano, a change from his 2011 debut, “Gentle Spirit,” which he wrote mostly on acoustic guitar. “One of the brilliant things about a good piano, and particularly a piano of that size, is [how] a very simple passage sounds beautiful,” Wilson says. “The piano was definitely commanding the album.”
Friends in High Places
Wilson, 39, moved from North Carolina to Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon in 2005 and, through one of his old bandmates, befriended Browne. “Jackson is one of my best buddies,” Wilson says. “We hang out all the time and go to guitar shops and go out to dinner — just do s—.” Browne added vocal flourishes to “Fanfare” and helped hook Wilson up with Crosby and Nash. The pair add their distinctive, haunting vocal harmonies to “Fanfare’s” “Cecil Taylor,” which sounds like it could be an outtake from Crosby’s unheralded 1971 solo album “If I Could Only Remember My Name.” Wilson even coaxed Crosby into scatting. “It’s just like holy s—, man, so much deep expression, particularly [for] a scat singing improvisation,” Wilson says.
He has also become friends with The Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, whom he’s jammed with on several occasions. On tour (he’ll stop in D.C. on Sunday) Wilson and his four-piece backing band have two ’70s-era live Dead box sets on a loop in the van. “That’s what we’re rocking,” he says.
Behind the Scenes
Wilson worked as a producer and session musician (in 2008, he appeared on Elvis Costello’s “Momofuku” and Jenny Lewis’ “Acid Tongue”) before people started to notice him for his own music. He produced the first two albums from L.A. rock band Dawes, Father John Misty’s 2012 album “Fear Fun” and Bright Eyes leader Conor Oberst’s upcoming country-rock record “Upside Down Mountain.” “I think part of the job as a producer, a big part, is being a vibe juggler, [being] diplomatic and keeping the ball going,” Wilson says.
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