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On 'Frogtown,' guitarist Anthony Wilson tackles love, loss and lyrics

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Guitarist Anthony Wilson released "Frogtown," his latest album, on April 15, 2016.
Jesse Harris
Guitarist Anthony Wilson released "Frogtown," his latest album, on April 15, 2016.

Anthony Wilson is the song of beloved and influential Los Angeles bandleader Gerald Wilson, but he's also an accomplished guitarist in his own right. Now, he's taking up the vocal mic.

If there’s such thing as royalty in the Los Angeles jazz scene, Anthony Wilson is a prince. He’s a guitarist who’s worked with Paul McCartney, Leon Russell and Willie Nelson. For a day job, he plays guitar with singer Diana Krall. His father is the late Gerald Wilson, a trumpeter and big band leader who arranged for musicians like Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and more.

Anthony Wilson’s also a solo artist, with a handful of albums under his belt. For his latest record, "Frogtown," Wilson explored personal themes like love, death and family. "Frogtown" also marks the first time the guitarist has picked up a vocal mic.

Off-Ramp jazz correspondent Sean J O’Connell met Wilson in his Arts District apartment to talk about how he made the transition. 

On "Frogtown," his latest album

It's named after a neighborhood here in Los Angeles between the 5 Freeway and the L.A. River. I used to live nearby there and I walked quite a bit through the neighborhood. It's sort of an odd place that feels a little bit lost in time. The album itself, I consider it to be a collection of musical depictions of very specific moods, or feelings, or stories. That door opens and we keep you there.

On singing live for the first time

Just to begin to open my mouth, and begin singing after years and years of not doing it, and being identified with purely instrumental music... to sort of go to the first gig and sing the first song that I had written in front of that audience — it was like jumping off a cliff. 

Some of the songs on the record definitely touch on quite tender emotions, stories. The one I'm thinking of right at this moment is a song called "Our Affair" — which was definitely not easy to write or to sing. It's about my mother and my father, they met while he was married and had a family. They had an affair, which lead to me being born. 

On the legacy of his father, bandleader Gerald Wilson

My father moved to Los Angeles to 1944, I believe, and started his first big band. He loved this city. I heard him speak so many times about what it was like for him to see L.A. for the first time, and experience it for the first time. And I put myself in his shoes and imagined what kind of feelings he must have experienced, being on Central Avenue within the whole black community in Los Angeles at that time. 

It echoes of him constantly in other peoples' work, though you might not always hear the credit given.

On transitioning out of instrumental jazz and into vocal pop music

I love that. I mean, in a sense that has been one of my kind of building frustrations with playing instrumental music only. What if songs could be more specific?

Jazz musicians will play a song, and they'll say "this is my song, titled 'X' and it's about X." But Instrumental music can never be about X, really. Instrumental music is simply sound being played. As much as people who play instrumental music want to say that their songs are about something, it's actually not quite true. 

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