Since bursting onto the music scene in the late ’70s, Steve Vai has pushed the boundaries of genre and guitar with each project he does.
Beginning with his work with Frank Zappa’s band as a transcriber and guitarist, Vai has gone on to play with everyone from David Lee Roth to Ozzy Osbourne to his former guitar teacher Joe Satriani, on the G3 tours. Today, his work encompasses hard rock, jazz, pop and even symphonies.
His first solo album in seven years, this year’s “The Story of Light,” again finds the guitarist pushing his abilities on a new batch of instrumentals and vocal songs. But for the ardent fan, there’s more here than just 13 new songs — the album is part of a much larger concept piece that encompasses 2005’s “Real Illusions: Reflections” album and will stretch to Vai’s next recording as well, whenever that might be released. Although, finding a linear narrative within either of these albums as is might be difficult.
Steve Vai, with Beverly McClellan
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Where: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany
How Much: $69.50, $45.50, $39.50
More Info: 473-1845, www.theegg.org
“Each song is a depiction of a character or event — the way I wanted to release it was like in a puzzle,” Vai said recently from a tour stop in Philadelphia, 21⁄2 weeks into a two-month U.S. tour that hits The Egg on Sunday night.
“If you’re a fan of the music, you don’t have to necessarily understand or even follow the shadows of story line included in the songs, lyrics or liner notes. But the goal is, after the next installment — which I don’t know when that will be — I plan to bring the three records together over one long three- or four-record box set, with all the songs in the right order, and maybe some new lyrics in place of the melodies.”
The story in the albums, according to Vai, is centered on a captain-turned-shaman, Drake Mason, who, after traveling the world, builds a church with a reflecting pond in his hometown that the townspeople look into to discover their identities and consciousness. Eventually, the people of the town see how their identities and experiences are all interconnected — as Vai himself puts it, “creation in a nutshell, by Steve Vai.”
“Everybody has a story, you know what I mean? And a lot of times, it’s stranger than any fiction you can write,” he said. “And we all have our issues, and we all have our joys and our sorrows. So these things are basically presented . . . in shadow form in the songs that are puzzled together.”
The recording of the album took place in spurts over the past year and a half. Although there had been a long wait between albums, Vai certainly kept busy in those seven years — in addition to his family life, he also tackled tours with Experience Hendrix, which he headlined in 2010 (and which came to the Palace Theatre that year), and Zappa Plays Zappa, as well as writing three symphonies.
“My problem is I enjoy doing so many different things,” he said. “It’s kind of odd how time has a way of catching up with you.”
His varied experiences all come into play when he tours solo. He’ll usually add a different element to his solo band each tour — last time out it was violins, and this time it’s electric harpist Deborah Henson-Conant. While Vai has worked with harpists on his symphony pieces, he had to take care when integrating the gentler instrument into his hard-rocking group.
“I’ve composed various orchestra pieces that included a harp, but not as intimately as I do with Deborah,” he said. “It’s like playing with a piano player, or some other instrument that’s similar, but you just have to be careful when you orchestrate that into a rock band, because the harp is a very delicate instrument.”
Vocalist Beverly McClellan, a finalist on the first season of “The Voice,” is opening up the shows, and has also been joining Vai onstage to sing new song “John the Revelator,” which she sang originally on “The Story of Light.” She’s one of several guests on the album, including Henson-Conant and singer Aimee Mann.
“[That song] stems from an early recording I heard of Blind Willie Johnson,” Vai said. “I sampled the vocal and built this huge, guitar-heavy arrangement around it. I like to sing, but I know my limitations. So Beverly McClellan, . . . I approached her, and she sang on ‘John the Revelator.’ ”
Vai, a graduate of Berklee College of Music, first gained notoriety with Zappa, and then as a member of David Lee Roth’s post-Van Halen supergroup. He later went on to stints with Whitesnake and Ozzy Osbourne, all while continuing to release solo records on a regular basis.
In 2010, he wrote his first symphony, which was performed at that year’s Steve Vai festival in Holland. He’s looking to write more, and will take four months off, after touring the U.S. and Europe for four months, to work on it. For him, while the tools are different in writing a symphony, versus working with a rock band, the music all comes from the same creative place.
“With the orchestra you have a lot more — maybe not a lot more, but a different set of textural tools, dealing with organic, acoustic instruments, and creating tapestries of sound based on those tools,” he said.
“I’ve been composing since before I was playing guitar, so I understand the rules of orchestration, and the limitations of the orchestra, which, it’s really quite a huge canvas when dealing with an orchestra. With a rock band, there’s a whole different energy level you can create — it takes different brain muscles, but where it all comes from is the same.”