For a number of years, Anthony Wilson would walk or bike regularly from his home in Northeast Los Angeles into a little-known neighborhood between the 5 freeway and the L.A. River. Elysian Valley (or “Frogtown,” named for the hordes of Western toads who used to hop out of the river) is a quirky home to independent bookstores and shops, artists’ workshops, even chicken farms.
“I liked the idea of having a place named for my album that maybe wasn’t a place anybody knew,” says Wilson, speaking by phone from his current home in downtown Los Angeles.
Discovering interesting yet hidden things is a running theme on Frogtown, the debut record from Wilson’s current working group, The Curators. It’s also a current theme in his own life as Wilson, 48, is exploring aspects of his musical and personal being, which differ dramatically from how he is best known, as the son of legendary Los Angeles jazz bandleader Gerald Wilson and the exemplary guitarist for iconic pianist/vocalist Diana Krall. For one thing, Wilson is, for the first time, singing his own lyrics to many of the original songs on the album, telling stories that can’t be articulated through only instrumental music.
“I don’t have a specific interest in becoming a singer-songwriter,” Wilson says, “but I do have a compelling interest in having more [tools] available to me to use when I want to say something. There’s a song on the album called 'Our Affair,' which is specifically about my family history, about my mom, my dad, about his family. ... People have elements of that story in their own lives, and to me that’s really interesting to be able to say something that’s specific to you, yet it can link directly into other people’s experience. That’s such a fascinating thing about songs with words.”
The song is, literally, Wilson's origin story; it recounts an extramarital romance between his father and his mother, Anita Leonard. Growing up with his mom, Wilson’s main musical exposure was to her record collection and her diverse listening tastes, from Ravi Shankar to Erik Satie to Joni Mitchell. But those recordings became less of a factor as he began to study jazz and follow in his father’s footsteps. “I appreciated my dad’s single-mindedness about jazz,” Wilson says. “As I became serious about jazz as a teenager, he impressed upon me how difficult it is to play jazz, and how much it takes of the person who wants to know it.”
Gerald Wilson died in 2014, and his son has carried on his father’s legacy, as a jazz musician and as a community leader for musicians in Los Angeles. “When he would talk about Los Angeles, it was always within the context of finding his promised land, finding the musicians he loved to be with and finding the home he loved,” says Wilson, who might as well be talking about himself. “Los Angeles has this community of musicians that are all doing different things, and there’s a lot of possibilities for different kinds of mixtures that don’t happen in other places.”
Wilson’s own L.A. music community includes many of the best crossover artists between jazz, rock and folk music, including violinist/vocalist Petra Haden, drummers Jim Keltner and Matt Chamberlain and keyboardist Larry Goldings. The latter two will play with Wilson this Sunday at Bacchus’ Kitchen in Pasadena.
Many of these musical personalities ultimately helped to create the music on Frogtown. There are homages to country, folk, blues-rock, even New Orleans-inspired bamboula music. Yet there’s no doubt the music is still based in improvisational skill. Wilson doesn’t hide the fact he is a jazz musician.
“I’ll go to see somebody that is trying to branch out of their world, and you’ll know that this player has so much rich ability, but suddenly they’re just doing three-chord songs," he says. "There’s no judgment attached to that, but for me I feel like what I want to do is just to be as inclusive as I can about who I am as a person and a musician.”
In Frogtown, Wilson illustrates a compelling and authentic path forward for creative musicians in Los Angeles, and he continues to engage and stimulate the jazz community here. (Full disclosure: This writer has sponsored several events at which Wilson has performed.)
Asked if his unusual family situation created a conflict in his musical biography, Wilson says it was more of “an interruption in allowing certain musical influences to come into what I was doing. I don’t think it created a conflict in the sense that everything was always there; it was just exploring different paths, and now those paths have converged again. It’s trying to include [everything] so the conflict, if any, gets resolved, and those things can find a harmony.”
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In the final verse of “Our Affair,” Wilson retells his father’s recollection of a wistful moment with Anita and baby Anthony, “in the place where we stayed with the one that we made.” Perhaps the song and this album are leading back to that moment, when all aspects of Wilson’s life have finally come together once again.
The Anthony Wilson Trio, with Larry Goldings and Matt Chamberlain, perform at Bacchus' Kitchen on Sunday, May 22.