For Jay Geils, the days of rocking with frontman Peter Wolf and the J. Geils Band are a universe away. These days, it's jazz, blues and swing from the likes of Count Basie and Duke Ellington that make his guitar sing.
So, don't expect to hear "Centerfold," "Love Stinks" or "Freeze Frame" - a few of J. Geils' '70s and '80s hits - when the now 60-year-old ex-rock 'n' roller takes the stage tomorrow to kick off the season at Maudslay Arts Center in Newburyport. The reinvented Geils will be flanked by Gerry Beaudoin and their quintet for an evening of seminal jazz in the outdoor amphitheater.
"Word's getting out, but it's not a new thing for me," Geils said in an interview last week. "I was always a big jazz fan as a kid. It's really what I enjoy most."
But first came a detour into rock. The New Jersey native known for his Chicago Southside-style guitar spent 15 years with Wolf and their bandmates in the Boston-born J. Geils Band, becoming one of the most popular touring groups in the country in the 1970s. They released 14 albums, scored a Grammy nomination and played thousands of gigs, including tours with The Allman Brothers and Rolling Stones, before breaking up in the 1980s.
Geils didn't touch a guitar for the next several years. Instead, he opened his own vintage auto restoration shop, building on his training as a mechanical engineer.
By 1992, however, he had reunited with former J. Geils bandmate Magic Dick, forming Bluestime and releasing two blues recordings. Then a chance meeting in 1994 with Beaudoin, a Berklee College of Music-educated band leader, arranger and guitarist who Geils admired, led him back to music and his roots.
A trumpet player and jazz lover growing up, Geils said he connected early on to Chicago blues. His dad took him to see many of the greats, including Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Ellington and Basie growing up.
"It's just something that I always wanted to do, but frankly I was not quite good enough," Geils said of jazz. He knew he could make more money playing rock.
Classic jazz and blues is entirely different from rock, with much more room for improvisation, he said.
"It's not meant to be a show," he said. "It's meant for listening."
Geils has spent the last 10 years performing in the New Guitar Summit with Beaudoin and bluesman Duke Robillard and with various other ensembles with Beaudoin. They collaborated on three CDs, including the recent acoustic "King of Strings." Geils also released his first solo record, "Jay Geils Plays Jazz," in 2003, featuring multiple guest saxophonists.