Session stories are like fishing stories: sometimes the best tales are about the ones that got away. Did you know, for instance, that guitarists Kevin Breit and Bill Frisell recorded an entire album of jazz standards with Norah Jones that, so far, has never seen the light of day?
When the suits at Blue Note heard it, Breit reports from a Montreal hotel, “They said, ‘Sounds like a bar-mitzvah band.’ Now, I don’t know how they got that. I can’t imagine that with me and Bill… A bar mitzvah? I could not figure that one out.”
He’s laughing, though. And he laughs again when he relates how Mark Knopfler shut him out of a Ruth Moody session, or at least kiboshed an elaborate guitar orchestration the Toronto-based multi-instrumentalist had arranged for the Dire Straits star to solo over. But at least he got something out of that date: a new musical persona, Johnny Goldtooth.
Knopfler had already taken one pass at the track, but Moody and producer David Travers-Smith wanted something with more edge, a quality Breit has to spare. “I just wanted to make it the opposite,” Breit says, “so I thought of this guy—this guy wearing a bullfighter outfit, you know. He’s got the gold tooth, he’s a chain smoker, he pinches women’s asses, married five, six times—a weird, old, tough motherfucker who just plays what he plays. Like Link Wray—that kind of deal.”
The production team loved it. Knopfler didn’t. And a few weeks later Breit made a discovery that solidified Goldtooth’s character in his mind.
“I’d inherited our photo albums that my father and my mother kept,” he explains. “And I was showing my children my parents—they’d never met my parents; they were long gone before they were born, right? And it had been years since I’d gone through these photo albums, and I see the red one—it’s tattered, the cover’s off it—and there it is. There’s my father, dressed up in a bullfighter outfit, playing a Beltone bass, and he looks beautiful. And he is the character that I had in my head. I couldn’t believe it. I took the photo out, put it up in my music room along with pictures of matadors, and I got really into this character. Who is this guy? And I got so into it I became him when I played.”
Breit eventually turned his vision into a hilarious YouTube mockumentary and an album, Johnny Goldtooth and the Chevy Casanovas. The latter’s a bold, swaggering effort, and even if it sounds like it could have been made 50 years ago—it’s full of sly references to guitar pioneers Wray, Mickey Baker, and George Barnes—it’s also animated by Breit’s very postmodern sense of genre play. And fun. Lots of fun.
“It’s a wagging-tail-on-a-dog record,” says Breit, explaining that as the record evolved, Goldtooth became less of a hard-ass and more of a lovable eccentric.
More like his creator, in other words?
“Well,” says the guitarist, “sometimes it’s nice to walk into a room and not be yourself.”
Johnny Goldtooth and the Chevy Casanovas play a free Downtown Jazz concert at 5:15 p.m. on Saturday (June 23), as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Kevin Breit will also perform with Shaun Verreault at Prestige Guitars (1332 Main Street, North Vancouver) at 7 p.m. on Thursday (June 21), and at the Cottage Bistro on Friday (June 22).