Dwight Sills: Creating His Own Space

Liz Goodwin BY

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After delivering three projects on other record labels, guitarist-composer-producer Dwight Sills decided it was time to start creating an outlet for himself on his fourth and most personal CD yet, Short Stories.

Creating this outlet was not a new concept for the Houston, Texas resident. Most of the eight tunes on this eclectic and engaging 2016 offering were written by Sills during the early '80s, when he was honing his craft on the ever-burgeoning Houston jazz club circuit. He explains that the process for him, while not the most facile one, was both gratifying and worth the risks that it took to follow his muse and conviction.

"This is the album that I've wanted to do all along," he says proudly, speaking via telephone from his home. I put my interests on the back burner and time, as we all know, is not promised to us." "It was a task but it was great. It was a learning curve for me and a process, but it was cool. I knew exactly what I wanted. I went back to revisit those tunes because there was a lot of musical development for me at that time, so I wanted to go back with the ears that I have now, and add a new twist to them."

One of the intangible twists to the Raleigh, N.C. native's Short Stories recording was focusing on not worrying about how the project would be perceived or marketed for a change. With his three previous releases: the eponymous Dwight Sills (Sony, 1990); Second Wind (Sony, 1991); and Easy (City Lights, 1999), a now defunct San Francisco-based label), he concedes that promoters often assured him more airplay if he played in a more smooth-jazz friendly style that would be more accessible to fans of the genre. As a result of more or less acquiescing to the demands of the marketplace in the past, he found himself not being as fulfilled as an artist; therefore, adhering to someone else's vision. All of those expectations from others evaporated with the birth of Short Stories.

"None of this music is for smooth jazz radio, he says emphatically, "and I knew that. "That's why I did it for myself with no expectations of selling a whole bunch. That wasn't the motive. The motive was to get the music out and to share it with those who know me and who have followed my career and the thing for me is that for every record that I've ever done, it was like starting over. He laughs at the wistful memories. "I mean, I was, literally speaking, starting over again because I did the first record, Dwight Sills, back in 1990, and then I went out and toured a little bit on that. Then, the second record came out, Second Wind, and I toured on that. But then if you're not touring constantly, you have to find other work. That's when I started playing with trombonist-producer-composer and Crusaders co-founder Wayne Henderson and saxophonist Wilton Felder. "Playing with them was great," he says, relishing the experience. So then after Second Wind, you start touring again and a few years go by, so I go out and do some more gigs," he says with a chuckle, "and do more promoting and it's just the same thing over and over. After a while, you're like, I starved enough in my younger years. I'm not [sic] going to do that again," sounding determined not to relive the frustration.

For Sills, an affable, articulate artist who has weathered many record business storms—with his metaphorical umbrella always on standby—Short Stories didn't leave him with a frustrating forecast of partly cloudy, chance of rain. Instead the musical skies have been much sunnier this time around. Unlike his previous projects, Short Stories represents and signifies music that always has been close to his heart. Understandably, each song has its own backstory. One particular tune that exemplifies this is the alternately mellow and fiery "628 Woodland...And Travels Beyond." It features a blazing trumpet solo by Ingrid Jensen and some sinewy solos by Sills that are a cross between his mellifluous, sensitive string work, and incendiary Jimi Hendrix-like (his musical idol and primary influence) fretboard showmanship. He fondly recalls the song's title. "628 Woodland is an address where I lived in Houston, Texas during the late '70s. It was a place where there was a lot of musical growth going on at the time. I was playing in a four-piece, straight-ahead band four nights a week," he says, as if he wouldn't mind reliving those special days, when times were more relaxed and the emphasis on artist development was encouraged rather than dismissed altogether in favor of pleasing the masses as in today's cycle.

"We would play standards—some of our songs were from the fake book, I mean, real book, he laughs. "We'd write our own stuff, six nights a week, you know back in the good old days," he says with a bit of mischief in his voice. In fact, I remember once we were playing this club in town for six nights a week for almost a year!" He also wrote two other tracks featured on Short Stories during that same era: the infectious, rollicking "Two Kids," which highlights a gospel-drenched organ solo by Ron Reinhardt, a respected musician and good friend of Sills,' and the labyrinth, harmonic-infused "End of the Serpent," which hints at vintage, late '70s Weather Report. "Homecoming" lives up to its warm, inviting title with Sills' gentle halcyon strumming. Midway through the composition, he launches into a no-holds barred Hendrix-infused rollercoaster hard-rock solo.

On the funky side of the tracks is the soulful, playful tune "Will D." "Will D is a bassist friend of mine," a fact that immediately dismisses any thought that the song is named after singer Will Downing—though Sills has played on Downing's 2005 cd Soul Symphony. and calls Downing a "good guy." He [the tune's namesake] and I went through a whole lot together back in the late '70s and early '80s, you know, trying to play original music and you're starving to death [laughs]. He's still doing his thing playing great music in Minneapolis." In addition to organist Reinhardt and trumpeter Jensen, Sills is joined by bass ace and funk band Pleasure co-founder Nate Phillips, and the irrepressible drummer Chris Coleman. He says he was fortunate to get such stellar individual artists all on one project because they all just "nailed their performances" and they complimented his vision beyond expectation.

Sills, who learned to play music first by ear and later learned how to read music, played not only guitar but also keys; synth bass; percussion; wrote and produced all of the tunes; financed it; and was involved in every facet of the process from start to finish. His sound, amid the hundreds of thousands of guitarists on the musical soundscape, remains decidedly his own. It is difficult to describe but the humble, down-to-earth stringman asserts that his Southern roots—not unlike saxophone titan Kirk Whalum (who referred Sills to the late influential music executive Dr. George Butler, a confidante to Sills early in Sills' career, when Butler was looking for talented artists on the rise)—totally inform his sound.

"Kirk Whalum is one of those distinctive players that when you hear him, you just know he is from somewhere down south (Memphis, Tennessee). "It's just that thing, that sound that you can relate to," Sills adds. It's that elusive "thing" to which the guitarist refers, that permeates and shapes his jazz and rock-laced sound on Short Stories, . That's about as close as it gets to him trying to label his style. He isn't too fond of affixing sonic labels to what he does. However,he has a strong sense of describing the origin of his music's spirit.

"How I grew up and who I grew up listening to has a lot to do with it [his own sound], he says. "And I've heard some people say there's almost a country feel to how I play and I hear that. I know exactly what they're talking about. I think that comes from where I come from—you know, growing up in North Carolina. "It's just some of the music that I would hear and how I would interpret things—that element. "I think being a self-taught player first and then later learning theory and harmony, all that stuff is somewhat the opposite way that most people do [learning how to play]. But I think that it also gives you a different way of looking at music and interpreting things."

Guitarist Hendrix played a major role in how Sills both views and interprets music. "Jimi Hendrix was actually the reason that I picked up the guitar in the first place, says Sills, who has either toured with or has played on sessions with diverse acts such as actress-singer Bette Midler; the late multi-talented keyboardist George Duke; drummer-composer Terri Lyne Carrington, keyboardist-composer Russell Ferrante; saxophonist-composer Richard Elliot; singer-songwriter-musicians and composers Gary Taylor and Frank McComb; drummer-composer Rayford Griffin; and the late pianist-composer David Catney. That's just the short list.

"With Hendrix it's not just about his music. I actually started listening to his lyrics and I learned so much about him. He is my biggest, all-time musical influence. Sills originally played bass and drums, has played in straight-ahead traditional jazz and gospel settings, before necessity became the catalyst for his switch to electric guitar. "We had a school dance we were going to do," he reflects, "so we put the band together. The guitarist pulled out of the gig at the last minute. I played a few chords and I was kinda hooked," he laughs. Sills also counts Duke, ("I had the privilege of playing in his band before he passed away" in 2013) and guitarist-composer John Scofield (the latter of whom is just after Hendrix on the influence list) as key influences.

Further generous with his praise of fellow musicians, such as Ferrante, Sills adds that Ferrante, who played on and composed songs for Sills' smooth jazz-oriented cd Easy, showed him the importance of being able to give listeners what they want, without compromising one's own stylistic pursuits. "Russ helped me to understand the importance of writing melodies that were fairly memorable, but make the content of the music fairly involved so that the two elements of nice beats and melodies are joined. He is one of my favorite people on the planet." The late Houston-based pianist Catney, with whom Sills played in a couple of bands, is also someone from whom he learned considerably. "I think that if he had not been sick (unfortunately, Catney passed away of AIDS-related complications in 1994 at 33 years old), he would have been a major musician on the New York jazz scene."

"Actually, playing with him (Catney) changed a lot of things for me as a musician. He just unknowingly pushed me to be a better player and helped me to know more about what I'm doing—harmonically, melodically, compositionally, and conceptually. That was key—his concept."

The hands-on, adrenaline rush experience of being involved with all aspects of Short Stories has enabled the busy guitarist to pause and reflect on where he is. Not unlike other seasoned, music industry veterans, Sills offers sound and sage advice to other artists contemplating taking a similar leap of faith to create outlets of their own.

"I'm at a point in life where I feel like I've come full circle. The recordings that I do from now on will be just strictly stuff that I love, with people I enjoy playing with. And I am doing it just for the sake of getting the music out (like Short Stories), pretty much documenting it in a way. I would just encourage more artists that if you feel like you have a voice, don't let chasing the dollar keep you from expressing that. I feel like the more creative people are in getting it out there, is really the only way the music, at least in this country, can change because right now, it's so very limiting and mediocre. And there are just so many talented people who have dedicated their lives to their craft that you never know who they are because we never give them an outlet to do it."

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