ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons is going to Cuba this June to play a jazz summit. And even he doesn't know why. "How did my name get on a jazz roster? I'm a blues and rock & roll player," Gibbons tells Rolling Stone. "But I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. I'd love to go to Havana."
Yet the ZZ Top guitarist, who recently recorded a weed anthem with his Nashville protégé Tim Montana, says he's not going to come armed with only rock riffs. Gibbons has been hunkering down in the studio, writing what he calls "Cuban music."
"The engineers were rolling their eyes, going, 'Yeah, Gibbons is going to go Havana on us.' But when I was 13, I got a guitar and my dad — being the consummate entertainer — sent me up to New York to study Latin percussion with Tito Puente. I learned maracas, timbales, clavas, bongos…you name it," Gibbons says. "And having lived in Mexico a couple years, I know just enough Spanish to get me in trouble."
Encouraged by the results, Gibbons is eyeing the project as a proper solo album. "I put together a little side band," he says. "I'm going back to wrap up the project and, believe it or not, it's turning out to be such an obtuse, oddball, unexpected left turn from ZZ Top's blues background. But there is something to it."
While filming Dave Grohl's Sonic Highways documentary series, he even turned to the Foo Fighters leader for advice on balancing careers. "I said, 'How do you get around having multiple bands?'" Gibbons recalls. "He said, 'Keep the golden goose. Doing a little side project ain't no big deal!'"
With ZZ Top bassist Dusty Hill recovered from an August fall on his tour bus, Gibbons and the Texas trio will return to the road in March to resume their tour. Last week, the band marked 45 years since playing its first gig together in 1970.