"The wise teacher," writes Kahlil Gibran, "does not bid you
to enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind... The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space, but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm nor the voice that echoes it." In other words, the wise master does not tell the apprentice what to say as much as help him uncover his creative voice. For nearly twenty years, guitarist and songwriter Jason Wilber has shadowed and collaborated with a legend, standing at the right hand of master folk singer-songwriter John Prine. He’s spent a good part of a lifetime as Prine’s lead guitarist on stages from Carnegie Hall to the London Palladium. As host of PRX’s In Search of a Song, he’s spent many hours in peer-to-peer conversation with musical greats such as Emmylou Harris, Bela Fleck, Mary Gauthier, and Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Over these years, Wilber has proven to be not just a formidable guitarist, but an incisive singer-songwriter as well, uncovering a commanding creative voice that is on full display with his latest album, ECHOES.
Echoes, gives display to a significant – yet often overlooked – form of art: the cover song. For a cover to be worthwhile and to withstand the test of time, the artist must command the source material (the sketch to the finished work) with an original voice - not as an imitator or performer, but as a lion tamer. Any hint of fear, uncertainty, or timidity can cause the work to devour the artist. On Echoes, Jason Wilber proves that his many years surrounded by such an august cloud of creative witnesses has lent much to the confidence in his voice, both creatively and literally.
The tracklist on Echoes is comprised of deep cuts from disparate artists, spanning the relatively obscure (a track from Big Star frontman Chris Bell’s posthumous solo album and a 2010 cut from London-based alternative-rock-pop-soul collaboration Graffiti6) to household names such as Echo & The Bunnymen, the Supremes, Joni Mitchell, and David Bowie. Wilber’s voice, musicianship, and expert arrangement command the source material with such a deftly confident gentleness that the result is emotionally moving in a way that cover songs rarely are. He delivers every syllable, every note, with the utmost earnestness, making the songs sound as if he wrote them himself.
The penultimate track is “Paradise,” by John Prine. Of all the songs on Echoes, “Paradise” hews closest to the original. It’s a melancholy bit of memoir - a signature of Prine’s writing - that reflects on the loss of a bygone stretch of rural Americana that’s been disappeared by the coal industry. The song finds Wilber remembering not his own childhood, but Prine’s – a respectful nod by the apprentice toward the master who taught him so much. Here the lion tamer faces a wild beast with jowls too large for reigns. They stand and meet, recognizing their mutual power and prowess, and continue on in respect.
The creative master Leonardo Da Vinci once said, “Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master, poorer is the painting which does not excel the sketch.” With Echoes, Jason Wilber proves his voice, accomplishing a feat of creative strength in taking the work of many masters and reinterpreting it as his own with utmost confidence.