Guitarist Dan Wilson has chops to burn, and he lights the fuse on the opener here, “The Rhythm Section,” which does feature his quartet mates Jeff “Tain” Watts (drums), Christian Sands (piano), and Marco Panascia (bass) but inevitably bursts forth with his own legato arpeggios, which meld the buffered warmth of Wes Montgomery with the quicksilver phrasing of Larry Carlton. It’s virtuosic enough to make you worry that the rest of Vessels of Wood and Earth might glide by on facile panache.
Nope. Even when Wilson’s already liquid rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Bird of Beauty” is tinged with synthesizer, his intrepid call-and-response exchanges with Sands disrupt any complacency. Watts’ spongy combinations alternately absorb and promote the groove on “The Reconstruction Beat,” climaxed by his martial solo. “Who Shot John” leads with a funky vamp that helped it stay on the set list when Wilson toured with organist Joey DeFrancesco. And Wilson’s “Juneteenth” is enriched by his delicate chordal accompaniment to Panascia’s probing bass solo until the pair inexorably swing into a quicker tempo.
The back side of the album dramatically departs from the established script in two ways. First, a trio of tunes deploy vocalist Joy Brown, who overemotes enough to mar the medley of Coltrane’s “After the Rain” and Marvin Gaye’s “Save the Children,” then doubles down into yelping anguish on “Cry Me a River.” Another Gaye cover, “Inner City Blues,” features atmospheric organ from Sands, a gorgeous bass solo from Panascia, and passable vocals from Brown to qualify as easily the best of her three appearances.
Next comes an intimate treat: The closing two songs are duets between Wilson and bassist Christian McBride, who brought Wilson into his Tip City trio and made Vessels of Wood and Earth the second recording on his Brother Mister label. They cover “James,” from Pat Metheny’s Offramp, like a series of gentle and gusty breezes, then turn to “Born to Lose,” recreating the cowboy-soulfulness that Ray Charles brought to the song but with their own shade of lamentation. As Wilson pearls out yearning notes and McBride plucks and bows with his typical command, the Brother Mister moniker feels even more appropriate.