For Lady Antebellum guitarist Jason “Slim” Gambill, working on an almost entirely instrumental album drenched in jazz influences was actually a return to his roots, not a nudge from his comfort zone.
Prior to a move to Nashville, which has quickly turned into 12 years and counting alongside a country act that’s sold more than ten million albums, Gambill first picked up a guitar during a fifth grade music class, later performing in the high school band before studying jazz at the University of Southern California. The improvisational nature of jazz music continues to identify all of the different music that he makes.
“A big chunk of my living at this point, obviously, has been as a sideman in a country band. And there’s times where I’m learning someone else’s songs and I’m learning someone else’s parts - and I’ve grown accustomed to doing that - but I think that I’m not able to help myself as far as putting my own spin on it,” said Gambill. “And also, from a creative standpoint, a lot of the chords, a lot of the harmony and a lot of the structure definitely informs my composition if nothing else. It’s not deliberate but I think every style of music I’ve gotten into, when I start playing guitar, that’s just what naturally happens.”
On his new album, Fake Jazz & Theme Songs, Gambill enlists the services of a diverse list of famous friends, including Dave Matthews Band saxophonist Jeff Coffin, Hanson multi-instrumentalist Isaac Hanson and guitarist Chris Nix.
The new album’s title pokes a bit of fun at Gambill’s jazz “cred,” while exposing some of his formative moments learning his instrument.
“I couldn’t quite figure out what to call it,” Gambill admitted. “I’ve been around some really legit jazz musicians in my life. People in the jazz scene dedicate their lives to it. There’s a certain thing they do - they know every standard in the book in all twelve keys and they transcribe solos and they are encyclopedias of jazz knowledge. I am not an encyclopedia of jazz knowledge. Where those guys are real jazz, I’m kind of a fake jazz guy,” explained the guitarist with a chuckle.
Gambill learned to play the guitar in front of the TV set, where he could practice while spending time with his family, a model he still uses today. As a child, he learned to play television theme songs from The TV Fake Book sheet music collection. They were experiences that prepared him well for what was to come.
“I’ve always just had a thing for it. In the late 70s and through the 80s, the theme music for TV shows was just king. It’s not as dominant anymore. So I miss that,” said Gambill of catchy tunes that were often performed by legendary session musicians like Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco. “I mean a show like The Fall Guy - like they literally went through two entire verses and choruses! It was a minute and a half intro so they could get another verse in. So many of those shows - Barney Miller, Dallas, Night Court - there’s so many of those theme songs that you’re like, ‘This stuff is great!’”
In 2005, shortly before moving to Nashville and beginning sessions on Lady Antebellum’s 2008 self-titled debut album, Gambill performed frequently as a member of the house band on the NBC late night show Last Call With Carson Daly.
Doing the show on and off for about a year and a half, Gambill drew from his love of TV alongside musicians like Joe Firstman, Kamasi Washington, Zane Carney and Tommy King.
“We had no plan. We’d look at who the guests were, come up with something to play and go play it,” said Gambill of working under the gun in late night television. “The first one that I was hooked on was the Arsenio Hall Show. I thought his house band was absurd. Then I started checking out other late night shows like Paul Shaffer’s Letterman band,” he continued, noting some of his favorite TV bands. “The one that took me over the top was the G.E. Smith-led Saturday Night Live band, because G.E. Smith is just a monster. He would always have a different, ridiculous, vintage guitar. Every bump to commercial was a different guitar and he’s just wailing on it with that big smile on his face. And then Lenny Pickett would wear it out on the outro to the show. Those were the first ones where I was like, ‘Jeez, man - I want that to be my job.’”
Being exposed to the vast array of artists and celebrities that populated the television tapings wound up being good prep for the array of musicians Gambill would ultimately find himself on stage with, a list now ranging anywhere from John Mayer to Stevie Nicks.
But it was working with singer songwriter Josh Kelley which ultimately led Gambill to his high profile day job backing Josh’s brother Charles Kelly in Lady Antebellum. While it was his mastery of southern rock guitar that landed him that gig, it’s his ability to adapt that’s helped him keep it for more than a decade.
“The whole reason I even ended up in the room is because they started and were like, ‘Yeah, we have this southern rock thing and you’re the southern rock. We gotta have you do that thing.’ And I was like, ‘Cool. I can do that.’ And I swear it was like the second day when they started pulling out tunes like ‘I Run to You’ and ‘One Day You Will’ and that early first album stuff,” said Gambill of the group’s ascent. “So, yes, it was out of my comfort zone. But I was like, ‘I can figure this out. I don’t have to be the southern rock guy all the time.’ It was just one step at a time. In fact, the Fake Jazz project was pulling myself out of that settled in pop/country mindset.”
While it’s heavy on instrumentals, Gambill’s latest solo effort puts all of his influences on full display.
“While I was learning about jazz, I was also obsessed with Bruce Springsteen and Curtis Mayfield. I was obsessed with Metallica. It was all kind of happening at the same time,” said Gambill. “I hope people check out the record and come see the shows. I keep calling it instrumental music for people that don’t think they like instrumental music. My record is not off the rails jazz dude, it’s very melodic and hooky. We were going for something people could connect with.”
*** Fake Jazz & Theme Songs is now available. Slim Gambill is on tour now with stops October 10 at HVAC Pub in Chicago, October 11 at The Jazz Kitchen in Indianapolis, October 12 at Jimmy Can’t Dance in Louisville, November 5 at City Winery in Nashville, December 8 at South Jazz Restaurant in Philadelphia and more. For the full itinerary, click HERE.