Slim Gambill goes from country to jazz on new album

Slim Gambill interview

SLIM GAMBILL

Fake Jazz & Theme Songs is the official debut album from Lady Antebellum guitarist Slim Gambill, and it is representative of a career — no, make that a journey — that seems to have come full circle.

Recording and performing with “Lady A” since 2007 has kept Gambill busy, but he also has worked with industry heavyweights such as John Mayer, Christina Aguilera, Maroon 5, Stevie Nicks, Darius Rucker and Peter Frampton and is the lead guitarist of the “Last Call with Carson Daly” house band. He’ll perform at South Jazz Kitchen in Philadelphia, Dec. 8; visit southjazzkitchen.com.

So how does a fella like Gambill, with this diverse performing history, come to make a jazz album? According to him, it’s kind of where it all started.

“The first music that I ever wrote and recorded was kind of in this vein: kind of a funky, jazz-infused rock with a horn section,” he said. “That’s what I was doing when I was in high school and college. So yeah, that was a big part of my life, and I did a lot of it when I lived in L.A. I haven’t done it really since I moved to Nashville but … I kind of circled back around to it because I had a friend reach out who had this jazz festival in New Mexico, and he asked me to be kind of a mentor to some high school and college big bands. He asked me to come down and do that and to play and it kind of gave me the kick in the ass that I needed to get this project going, because I had been thinking about it for a while. But that took it over the top.

“And yeah, it was like a coming home party. It was weird trying to get back into it after playing pop-country for 12 years straight, but it was a fun journey re-discovering things. I don’t want to say I’d forgotten, but that I had forgotten. (laughs)

“This is officially my first jazz album under my name. We put out one with a band when I was 19 years old, but that doesn’t quite qualify. It was kind of along these lines, maybe not quite as advanced. But yeah, I guess you can officially call it my debut album as Slim Gambill.

“That jazz festival in New Mexico is what started the process. When my buddy called me up … we had gone to high school together and we had a band together and we were in big band and all that stuff, and he’s a band director who is heavily involved in New Mexico All-State Jazz. So he has this non-competitive middle school, high school and college festival of big bands and they have a set of sort of mentors who listen to the bands play and give them some guidance during their time slot and there is a performance every night. So he asked me if I wanted to do it and I said, ‘Man, I haven’t even thought about big bands in 20 years, but it sounds fun,’ and he said I could be part of the house band at night. So I said, ‘What should I play?’ He said, ‘Do some standards; do you have any of your own stuff?’ I said, ‘No but I’ve got some ideas.’

“I basically went into the studio with some buddies in Nashville just so I could get these ideas down so I could send them to the house band. But it’s not really my style to do things halfway. So one thing led to another, I wrote more and more tunes, I recorded more and more, I added horn sections and before I knew it, I was like, ‘I might as well press this and have an actual product.’

“I did the jazz festival, some other shows started popping up, and it ended up going over really well: People have responded really well to the record. So it started as demos for a house band, a one-time deal, and just progressed to where it is now.

“I went into Sound Emporium Studio in Nashville, and the process of recording is not cheap, so I was like, ‘Well, if I’m spending the money to cut these demos I might as well finish them off.’ I’ve got a home studio set-up and, to be honest, I cut most of the guitar parts at home because in the studio my head is in producer mode and I’m kind of listening to what everyone else is doing and making sure that I get their tracks solid. I ended up obsessing over the guitar parts at my home studio.”

The next step was to find musicians who could both handle performing the arrangements and be available when the time was right, as Gambill’s hectic schedule made this potentially difficult.

“One thing that Nashville has is a lot of is good musicians, and because the music is not easy, finding guys with the facility to do it was interesting. I’m starting to get a good crew of people where I can go a few people deep on any given instrument that can learn the book and be available, because the shows aren’t that consistent where I can use the same guys (for every show). But I’ve got a few on any given instrument and it’s working pretty well so far.”

“You kind of have to do it that way unless you have enough shows on the books where you can tell somebody, ‘Okay, I’m going to book you out for the next six months.’ Everybody has to eat, so everybody has to work. This entire summer, I did exactly nothing (with my own music) because I was out on the road with Lady A and I can’t expect all the guys to be available at the drop of a dime because they’re busy doing other things. I managed to have the same three guys play with me at pretty much every show at the beginning of the year, and then I dropped off the map for four months.”

Words such as “Jam, Jazz, Swing” and “Yacht Rock-esque” have been used to describe Fake Jazz & Theme Songs, but with its powerful and at times in-your-face style, one can hear the varied influences of Gambill’s musical upbringing. So how has the response been to this brand of jazz, now that he’s been out on the road a bit?

“We did a country club gig recently — kind of strange with a whole bunch of people eating dinner — and we kept being told during soundcheck that it needs to be quieter. There were people having full-on conversations and our show tends to go off the rails and into jam territory so it’s not like passive, quiet, sit in the corner-type jazz (laughs).

“The shows that I’m booking, we never know quite know what we’re getting into. The best ones … we’ve done a fair amount of supper club-type venues with upscale, affluent suburbanites … where people come out for dinner and to see a show and they end up being really great listening crowds and are really into what we are doing. By and large it has all gone over really well because people don’t quite expect what they experience. There’s a lot of twists and turns; it’s kind of like the smooth jazz crowd but then we kind of rip their heads off and they’re way into it. I feel like the audiences are people that grew up listening to George Benson and Chuck Mangione but they also dig Led Zeppelin and Hendrix. Most of the time they’ll go to a jazz show and it’s in that realm and they dig it but they’re not used to it going full-bore classic rock. but they like it and they just didn’t quite realize it.

“There are no actual classic rock tunes, but my guitar playing just kind of goes there. I grew up listening to classic rock, Motown, Southern rock, ’60s and ’70s early funk, jazz and blues in high school and that all swirled together into what I am now. It all kind of works its way into my guitar playing.

“It’s hard to call it a tour, it’s more like little weekenders here and there. … I just try to just kind of regionally hit by having two or three shows in the same area and then come home and go out in a couple weeks and do the same thing over again. I try to gradually spread the word and be smart about it. I’ve got a wife and two little kids at home and I don’t necessarily want to be away from them any more than I have to. I’m trying to develop this project and get it out there and maybe start to get a solid reputation without full blown road-dogging; I’m kind of past that point in my life but I think in this genre that I don’t necessarily have to go out and road-dog. It’s not necessarily what’s done with the jazz scene.”

Over more than a decade, Gambill has entertained throngs numbering in the tens of thousands while touring with Lady Antebellum. He chuckled when asked what it’s like to go from stadiums and arenas to small venues.

“It’s great because you get to see everybody’s faces; the huge crowds are obviously awesome but it becomes sort of like this faceless mass and it’s hard to pick out individuals. … They both have their virtues, though. The big rooms are fantastic. Don’t get me wrong: it can be nerve-racking. But like I said, it’s a faceless mass. I probably get more nervous in front of way smaller audiences, walking out in front of 20 people, than I do at huge arenas. In some cases they can be three feet in front of you, eating their dinner (laughs).”

For more on Gambill, visit slimgambill.com.

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