Over the past decade, Tal Wilkenfeld has sealed her reputation as one of the most renowned jazz bassists today, kept pace with some of the world’s most talented rock and blues instrumentalists in front of tens of thousands of people, and played on record with some of music’s biggest names. Now, it seems there’s only one thing left for her to do: record a pop album.
Actually, that’s not quite accurate. Wilkenfeld’s new songs may be a far cry from the virtuosic, instrumental jazz-fusion of her 2007 debut. But, their adventurous instrumental moments and overall blistering intensity stretch the idea of singer-songwriter music far beyond that of any Top 40 sensation.
Those songs, which she’ll perform when headlining the Ardmore Music Hall this Saturday and opening for The Who at the Wells Fargo Center on March 14, are in some ways a return to form. Before coming to the United States from her native Australia when she was 16, Wilkenfeld was a guitar player penning her own vocal-driven songs.
And anyway, to her it’s all the same.
“It doesn’t feel like a change of style to me,” said Wilkenfeld in a recent phone interview. “It’s just another expression of my soul, lyrically speaking and musically speaking.”
Her new work, virtually unreleased right now, mixes elements of folk and rock, but isn’t quite either. Rather than hammer out a record deal and write to someone else’s expectations, Wilkenfeld’s recorded off and on for years, funding the project out-of-pocket through tours and session work.
She’s probably best known for her live work with guitarist Jeff Beck and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, and has also collaborated in the studio and onstage with everyone from Herbie Hancock and Prince to Ryan Adams and Toto. And, she’s been documenting her own work, little by little.
“It’s still not 100 percent complete, but it’s very close,” she said. “And I’m glad I haven’t [signed a record deal] because I’ve been able to explore without having the pressure to be something I may not have felt was organic to me.”
That approach led her to music that’s markedly different from what she’s known for right now. Even a quick listen to Wilkenfeld’s first album, or a look at videos of her live performances online, reveal mind-bending jazz licks and what sound daring, high-wire acts on an instrument that’s not usually in the forefront of the song. But the approach, she says, not the genre, defines her.
“I’m all about risk and going for it,” she said. “I’ve definitely been influenced by the mindset of jazz which is to be completely free at any given moment.”
Playing music to Wilkenfeld is like having a conversation. If two neurosurgeons, for instance, are talking, it’s going to be a different conversation than a painter and a neurosurgeon, she suggests. It’s usually how she discusses her interactions with other musicians, but it applies to the audience as well. This week she’s just speaking to people in the area who haven’t really heard her talk like this before.
“It’s much like life. You react to who you’re interacting with,” said Wilkenfeld. “Music’s not a gig for me. It’s real life, but on a stage. It’s a conversation on a stage.”
Tal Wilkenfeld will headline at Ardmore Music Hall, 23 Lancaster Avenue in Ardmore, on March 5, and open for The Who at the Wells Fargo Center, 3601 S. Broad St. in Philadelphia on March 14. For information, visit www.talwilkenfeld.com.