For the past 12 years, music fans across the globe have come to know guitarist Jason “Slim” Gambill as the secret weapon of country superstars Lady Antebellum. Of course, he makes sure he’s hard to miss: His two-foot-long braids are as easily recognizable as his fiery, hook-filled, rock-and-soul-infused solos. In short, when it comes to authenticity and individuality, Gambill is as real as it gets.
So it comes as something of a head scratcher that he’s called his first solo album Fake Jazz & Theme Songs, especially when there’s nary a smidgen of a false note or an overly stylized moment to be found on the entire disc. With characteristic modesty, Gambill explains the tongue-in-cheek first half of the title thusly: “I guess you could say I’m a tourist when it comes to jazz, much in the way that I’ve been to London, but I’ve never lived there. My music is very informed by the genre, but I would never put myself on the level of guys who have devoted their lives to jazz.”
Which isn’t to say that Gambill hasn’t put in his time with jazz. Back when he was a student at the University of Southern California, he spent countless hours transcribing standards as part of his studies in the Studio Jazz Guitar Program. “It was great training, but I just couldn’t see spending a week writing out somebody else’s solo,” he says. “I wanted to write and play my own music. That’s what I was itching to do.”
As for the “theme songs” portion of the title, it harkens back to Gambill’s earliest days as a player, when he would sit in front of the TV and jam along to the music in ‘80s police dramas. “I learned so much about the guitar that way,” he says. “I still love to practice to the TV. I don’t even consider it practice – it’s just fun.”
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Gambill moved around with his family quite a bit before they ultimately settled in Colorado Springs, Colorado. From as far back as he can remember, he wanted to be a guitar player. “I was way into classic rock, Southern rock, R&B, funk, and fusion from the ‘60s and ‘70s,” he says. “I liked some jazz, but I wasn’t into the bebop thing; I got mainly into the harder stuff that came after that.”
Gambill honed his chops in high school bands, and after moving to L.A. to study at USC he performed with a number of other groups, one of which, Firstman, was signed briefly to Atlantic Records. By that time, Gambill’s prodigious six-string abilities had caught the ear of Eric Clinger, an A&R rep at Hollywood Records, who hooked him up with singer Josh Kelley. Gambill played on Kelley’s 2005 album, Almost Honest, and toured with him for the next two years. And then something interesting and remarkable happened: Josh introduced Gambill to his brother, Charles, who was in the process of starting up a Nashville trio.
“Charles said, ‘Slim, you’ve got to come out to Nashville,” Gambill recalls. “We’re writing these songs, and I think something’s going to happen. You should play guitar with us.’ And that’s just what Gambill did. “I drove to Nashville, and got there April 1st of 2007. Sure enough, on July 1st, which was my 30th birthday, I was in the studio cutting Lady Antebellum’s first record. It all happened so quickly.”
Originally, Gambill’s strong Southern rock roots made him a natural fit for Lady Antebellum’s early music. As the band progressed to more pop and adult contemporary material, his multi-faceted abilities allowed him to become a vital part of their platinum success. In addition to recording and touring with Lady Antebellum, Gambill has co-written several songs that have appeared on the band’s albums.
Due to the demands of the group’s schedule, he admits that he hasn’t had much opportunity to spend on his own music (“a good problem to have when you’re part of a successful band”), but during a rare stretch of downtime he was asked by a friend to participate in a jazz festival in New Mexico. “It intrigued me,” Gambill notes. “I hadn’t played jazz since high school, but I decided to give it a go. I wrote a bunch of songs for the show, and they turned out really well. People really responded to what I was doing, and that pushed me to get serious about doing my own music again.”
Working with a small group of musician friends – among them drummer/percussionist Justin Glasco, keyboardists Mike Rojas and Kenneth Crouch, and bassists Matt Wigton and Luis Espaillat, along with a host of horn greats that included Dave Matthews Band member Jeff Coffin – Gambill wrote and recorded a collection of instrumentals with the overarching idea of “letting the music flow in the most natural way I could.”
Which it indeed does. The album’s opening track, “Last Time Thing,” built around Gambill’s affectionate nods to Wes Montgomery and George Benson, is a jazzy groover that features hooks for days. “Levitation” takes off into the land of wicked jazz-swing, with Gambill easing back to let the keyboards and horns duke it out before he lets loose with a wildcat solo.
The aptly named “Cop Show,” Gambill’s neo-noir tribute to ‘80s TV themes, is a veritable feast of widescreen guitar riffs and blazing solos. Opening the song is Coffin’s standout sax run, which as Gambill points out, originated from a mash-up of influences. “I didn’t have anything written out,” he says, “so I just told Jeff, ‘Baker Street’ and ‘Careless Whisper.’ That was all it took for him to knock us all down.”
As the album unfolds, more treasures reveal themselves, like the transfixing “54321,” on which Gambill, gliding merrily through shifting time signatures, responds to the musical question, “What would Jimi Hendrix sound like if he were signed to Blue Note?”
Axe fans will luxuriate in the dual-shaded wonders of “Also Shuffle,” which lulls listeners in with the pastoral sounds of acoustic folk before ushering them into a smoky, after-hours blues club for some swooning electric jams. And they’ll rejoice at the atmospheric mini-epic “4 Guitars Having a Conversation Over Cocktails,” on which Gambill (who performs two guitar parts) engages in a spirited dialog with a curious pair of six-string pals: Chris Nix, a frequent collaborator with Korn’s Jonathan Davis, and Isaac Hanson of the group Hanson. “This is probably the only record that will ever feature those two guys together,” Gambill proudly states. “They’re both friends of mine, so I asked them to be on the track. Chris is a chops-galore guy, so I knew he’d be great, and Isaac is a very melodic player, and he did some beautiful stuff. And it really does sound like we’re having a conversation – we’re interrupting each other all the time.”
Three cuts on Fake Jazz & Theme Songs carry particular personal resonance for Gambill. On “Silly Time,” the guitarist takes part in a joyous back-and-forth with his horn section, ultimately busting out a blitzing solo that blends Berklee sophistication and street-smart impulse. “The title comes from a phrase I coined when my son, River, was nine or 10 months old,” Gambill says. “He would bounce around before going to bed, and I called it ‘silly time.’ When I wrote the song, it was so fun and happy that it made me think of those days.”
He wrote “Lyla Maria” for his young daughter, but it’s anything but a drippy ballad. “She’s a little rocker,” he enthuses. “From the minute she was born, I knew she was a firecracker.” Suitably, the deep-groove blues rocker explodes with snaggle-toothed riffs and a chorus that sticks in the thicket of one’s senses.
“62 Victory Boulevard” is another song close to Gambill’s heart. A transportive acoustic gem that features shimmering chord work that at times recalls Yes’ Steve Howe, the song was titled for both the street name in Staten Island where his wife, Megan, grew up along with the number of the bus Gambill would take to visit her during their days of long-distance dating. “The song is moody and dark, and it reminds me of sitting on the bus at three in the morning,” he observes.
Rounding out the album is its sole vocal tune, and it’s a doozy – “Getting Over You,” a meticulously written and arranged slice of ‘70s pop-R&B that is graced by a seismic performance by singer Candace Devine. Gambill had already recorded a version of the song for Devine’s EP, Here We Are (which he produced), but for his album he decided to revisit the track. “I wanted to do more of a guitar thing with it,” he says, “kind of how Santana would do it. I stretched out the guitar intro, and then throughout the cut I made it more of a duet between me and Candace. It turned out pretty great.”
Between Lady Antebellum tours, Gambill has been playing cuts from Fake Jazz & Theme Songs at jazz clubs in Nashville, and time permitting, he’s eyeing more dates around the country. Depending on their availability, players in his band sometimes change, but for “95 percent” of his shows he performs with Latavius Mulzac on keys, Michael Majett on bass and Eljah “DD” Holt on drums.
“It would be awesome if I can tour more extensively in the next year, but I’m taking things as they come,” Gambill says. “I just know that I’m so proud of this album, and I’m really grateful that I had the chance to make it. It ties a lot of my influences into a really cool package, and it really shows off the fact that I’m a writer and composer first and foremost. Guitar is the voice I use to express myself.”