This might seem strange, but I had firsthand knowledge of Jonathan Wilson’s talent without ever having heard a note of his music. Here’s why: a few years ago, long before Wilson had won any fame as a performer, a friend handed me a guitar to try out. It looked, sounded, and felt like a well-used early-’60s Fender Telecaster Custom—a really good early-’60s Fender Telecaster Custom, with all the divots, wear, and corrosion you’d expect from what then would have been a 45-year-old instrument.
But it wasn’t.
“This guy Jonathan Wilson made it,” my friend told me. “He’s got a company called Greenwich Village Custom Guitars.”
I almost ordered one on the spot—and I’m sorry I didn’t, for although Wilson still makes meticulously handcrafted replicas of vintage guitars, these days they’re for his own use only. Instead, he’s been putting his energy into playing music, and in both his own releases and the work he does as a session player he shows the same attention to period detail that he does as a luthier. He’s not so much copying the sound of the past as creating works of art that could have been made back then—folk-rock records that would have been right at home on the fabled Asylum label circa 1973, alongside early works by Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, and Joni Mitchell.
Or he was, anyway, right up until last year’s Rare Birds.
“This particular album that’s out now, it’s more of a hybrid, more of a modern type of sound on certain songs mixed with ’80s and ’90s sounds and textures, whereas stuff I’ve done in the past is more in line with the sounds of the ’70s,” Wilson explains, on the line from Topanga Canyon, where he now lives.
We’re not quite sure whether to believe him—standout track “There’s a Light”, for instance, immediately calls to mind George Harrison’s 1970 masterpiece All Things Must Pass—but Wilson’s ability to bring the past into the present has won him a lot of friends, young and old. As a producer he’s worked with artists as diverse as English folk-rock legend Roy Harper, the late countrypolitan crooner Glen Campbell, and hipster icon Father John Misty, while for a good chunk of the past two years he’s filled David Gilmour’s sizable oxfords as the lead guitarist in Roger Waters’s touring band.
So why is this rock ’n’ roll chameleon playing the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival this week? Well, there’s at least one good reason: Wilson has a strong link to the greatest jazz musician ever to come out of North Carolina, his home state.
“My grandfather was a pastor and my grandmother, she instructed and sang with all the choirs,” he explains. “So the first time I heard sounds and songs they were all concerned with spirituality and stuff like that. So that feeling of music correlating to something bigger, something greater, is something that I’m always trying to understand—and I’ve heard a similar story about John Coltrane.”
Jonathan Wilson plays the Imperial on Saturday (June 22), as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival. It runs from Friday (June 21) to July 1 at many venues around the city.