Calling Little Steven Van Zandt a creative multitasker is like calling his old friend/boss Bruce Springsteen just another Jersey rocker. Coming out of the recovery side of a bout with sinusitis that caused Van Zandt to cancel several dates of his Summer of Sorcery Tour, the Massachusetts native is back on his feet ready to wrap up an event-packed 2019. Having returned to the recording studio for the first time in a quarter century with 2017’s Soulfire, the subsequent tour and live DVD that came out of that time on the road inspired him to take his 15-piece Disciples of Soul into the studio to record Summer of Sorcery, a stylistically diverse follow-up that came out earlier this year. Inspired by what Van Zandt calls, “That one special summer where you first fall in love with life, that thrill of just being alive,” Sorcery is a dozen cinematic vignettes that finds the bandanna-clad band leader taking on different personages with serving up a bouillabaisse of musical styles.
“I decided that if I was going to do something new, what do I want to say right now? I thought that I didn’t want to do anything autobiographical or political any more. Right now it’s the darkest period that I can remember, so I thought I should do something with positive energy to it and something that’s uplifting and optimistic. See if we can create a bit of positive energy to balance what’s going on right now,” Van Zandt explained. “There’s something about the fantasy of summer—that you’re going to go to the beach, fall in love with somebody or go to some club and have that happen. It goes all the way back to the whole symbolism of spring and summer and the Earth coming alive and growing. It’s all that positive energy and all about the ultimate, idealistic version of what summer can be. So I tried to capture that and make it like 12 little movies and I play a different character in each one, rather than being autobiographical. I decided to fictionalize the whole thing. It really opened things up.”
The end result are gems ranging from the Tito Puente-inspired “Party Mambo!” and the sweeping romanticism of “Love Again,” a soaring heart-on-your-sleeve slice of yearning that combines swinging horns, girl group harmonies and the winsome pain of fellow Garden Stater Southside Johnny to the blaxploitation-flavored edginess of “Vortex,” which throws darting string arrangements and a healthy dose of wah-wah guitar into a tasty musical stew. While the speed with which he returned to the studio surprised Van Zandt, he came away immensely satisfied.
“It’s the first two records I’ve done in a row with the same band, which was really wonderful. That was a whole other thing that was different. So you had that foundation that was really strong, coming from the band itself,” he said. “I think the influences that ended up on the record tie into what I want to hear. I want to hear the influences of where I’m coming from. I always do that. So I wanted to be like a modern version of Sly & the Family Stone. We’re multi-generational, we’re multi-racial, we’re multi-gendered. We’re like the United Nations in the band itself.”
Having also made his mark in recent years via his breakthrough success in The Sopranos, Van Zandt followed it up with the unprecedented success of Lilyhammer, a fish-out-water Netflix series about a mobster living in witness protection that found him relocated to Norway. While Van Zandt had trepidation about playing another Mafiosi, his involvement as a co-producer, co-writer, composer, director and lead character gave the show a devoted cult following that continues despite the show only running 24 episodes for three seasons from 2012 to 2015. The Lilyhammer fervor led to Universal teaming up with Van Zandt’s Wicked Cool record label to release Lilyhammer The Score—Volume 1: Jazz and Volume 2: Folk, Rock, Rio, Bits and Pieces. It’s the only music the sexuagenarian Rock and Roll Hall of Famer composed for four years and something he’s rightfully proud of.
“I felt the music should be a combination of New York jazz and Norwegian folk music, because that’s what the show is about. So you hear that in the theme song,” Van Zandt said. “We did one volume of jazz and one volume of different pieces of different things and themes. It was a lot of fun, man. I always wanted to score a film or TV show. I got a chance to do that and it was nice.”
A tireless education advocate, one of Van Zandt’s proudest accomplishments was the establishment of the nonprofit Rock and Roll Forever Foundation and its TeachRock project, which was founded in 2007. The goal has been to create a kindergarten to grade 12 national curriculum that offers free materials/lesson plans to teachers in which multimedia support consisting of timelines, biographies and interviews with music legends is used to cover topics in language arts, media studies, social studies, music and more. It’s his effort to aid educators who he considers to be “…on the front line in the war on ignorance.” The latest wrinkle in this program was designating his current concert dates as the Teacher Solidarity Tour, with the goal of registering 10,000 teachers to use the free TeachRock Music History Curriculum.
“This is a worldwide and future-defining curriculum. Everybody loves Americana. The rest of the world has more respect for Americana than we do. This is the first time we’re able to capture the attention and keep it of this new generation,” Van Zandt said. “[Educators have] been having a hell of a time. These students are faster than us and have no patience. Teachers are always trying to find ways of capturing [their students’] attention and keeping it. We’re the first curriculum to do that and we’re doing it with music. Kids love music, so we get their attention with the music and we keep it. It’s been very, very successful so far and we’re just getting started.”
Visit www.teachrock.org to find out more about the TeachRock Music History curriculum.