Music ‘Window’ dressing

Jazz bassist Joël Dilley makes a concept album without words

Joël Dilley and his trio play regularly on the River Walk at Swig. Behind the bandstand, the club has a window that inevitably attracts the attention of pedestrians.

“They look inside and forget that you can see back at them,” Dilley says. “Some people will knock and some will do really weird things, like expose themselves. And a lot of them will look kind of like zombies.”

Joël Dilley: Bringing a composer’s sensibility to the bass. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

This nightly parade of characters unwittingly performing for the band inside the bar became a theme for Dilley as he approached the making of his second CD (not counting the scores of projects to which he’s contributed). Not coincidentally, he decided to call the album The Window.

Dilley is San Antonio’s premier jazz bassist, but he’s also a quiet, gracious, self-effacing man who doesn’t particularly like calling attention to himself. The old stereotype of the jazz musician who’s most comfortable and eloquent when playing his instrument could have been created for Dilley. He has a medium build, wavy black hair with hints of gray, and speaks in a low, gravelly voice, with the intensely distracted air of a painter. In a way, he is, but his canvas is the recording studio.

Dilley doesn’t like to say where he’s from (other than to say he’s spent some time in Chicago and New York), but he reveals that he’s been working studio sessions since his adolescence, when he played electric bass guitar in fusion groups. He had a knack for nailing his parts quickly, and in his spare time he closely watched the engineer and picked up techniques.

With nothing but his own resourceful nature to rely on, he built his current studio, Mandala Music, and engineers sessions for himself and his circle of friends and collaborators (including his wife, vocalist/pianist Bett Butler). The studio is a small, spartan space in the King William Historic District, with concrete floors and a notable absence of isolation booths. This is Dilley’s workspace/playground.

“I started the studio because I thought it’d be nice for me to have unlimited time to do my own work. And that’s good and bad, because it can take forever. I usually have three or four different projects going at once. Basically, my project always takes the last chair of the process because people always want it real fast. It’s easy to say, ‘I’ll do mine tomorrow.’”

The Window evolved slowly over a period of close to three years, with plenty of stops and starts. One of Dilley’s challenges involved coordinating the demanding schedules of the heavyweight lineup he assembled, including trumpeter Cecil Carter, saxophonist Rob Hardt, drummer Gerry Gibbs, trombonist Ron Wilkins, and tenor-sax player Tony Campise.

The beautifully rendered album reflects Dilley’s preoccupation with conceptual composition. Beyond the title theme, he also devotes a string of tunes in the middle of the disc (“Time Remembered,” “A Wrinkle in Time,” and “Some Other Time”) to the fleeting nature of time, and the record also contains a trilogy of Dilley pieces called “Secrets.” Storytelling with instrumental music is a daunting task, but Dilley gives much thought to the ways music — without words — can articulate feelings and experiences.

“Certain combinations of notes and moods create that thought process,” he says. “As a composer and an instrumentalist, music has always been very emotional: how to trigger feelings or how to organize my thoughts. Combinations of sounds have been my psychologist, my therapy.”

Dilley moved to San Antonio in the mid-’80s to study with one of his musical idols, Alamo City native Jackie King. A dedicated music educator as well as a respected jazz virtuoso, King established the Southwest Guitar Conservatory in San Antonio, and Dilley became his staff bassist. He later played with King on a recording project for Columbia Records, and through King he met Willie Nelson and became connected to people in the New York jingle industry. Dilley eventually recorded with Nelson, and developed a side career as a composer of jingles for Norelco and a host of other companies.


8 and 10 pm
Sat, Jan 14

Carmen’s de la Calle Café
720 E. Mistletoe

“They want it right away,” Dilley says of the demands for jingles. “The best way to do it is not to think about it. You do think about it a bit, but you don’t second-guess yourself. The creative part of it was fun and challenging, but the music is secondary to the sales pitch, and it was hard for me to deal with that.”

Cecil Carter, Dilley’s co-producer on the new album, suggests that Dilley is in some ways inseparable from his music, noting “it’s an expression of who he is. If people like his music, then they would like him.”

Carter lauds Dilley’s bass work, saying “With his technical finesse, there’s no one like him here. His approach is more harmonically complex than most bassists. Also, being a composer really illuminates his playing.”

Dilley’s technical mastery is most evident on a solo version of Hoagy Carmichael’s chestnut “Stardust,” in which he takes the six-string bass into the realm of Wes Montgomery and Barney Kessell, all the while maintaining a deep rhythmic foundation that’s crucial to the bass.

While Dilley never seems to lack for ideas, he welcomes occasional breaks from composing. “It goes in cycles,” he says. “Sometimes I do it in a constant way and at other times I’ll go a while without it. Sometimes you just have to go out and reload the computer with information so you can have information to write about.”

By Gilbert Garcia


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