I had wanted to interview Jack Wilkins for quite some time. It is generally agreed that he is one of the most consistently innovative jazz guitarists on the scene today, and a very interesting individual... but I wanted it to be something more than just your standard, "What kind of strings do you use? What color picks do you prefer? What did you have for breakfast this morning?" type of article.
Over the summer, I proposed my concept to him of putting together a list of "Jack Wilkins 'Top 10’ Favorite Jazz Guitar Records." He seemed to like the idea, but warned that 10 might be too small a number. A few weeks passed, and he and I became participants in game of answering machine tag. He did leave the message that 13 or 14 records would be a more likely total. When we finally did speak face -to -face, or phone -to -phone as was the case, that number had grown to about 17. 1 said "Fine, just drop the list in the mail. I'll make a few notes, and we'll set up an interview date."
The following week, Jack's "Top 10" arrived. All 30 albums. By the time I got to the end of his letter, he had included Kenny Burrell's Live at the Village Vanguard," for a grand total of 31! When the day of the interview arrived, my first question was, of course, "Do you want to add any more?" Jack laughed and said, "No," although it was followed quickly by, “Well... there were some Jim Hall things that should have been mentioned..." We decided to cut it off there, for given any longer to germinate; the list could easily have grown to a Top 100!
So here goes, "Jack Wilkins' Top Ten (plus) Favorite Jazz Guitar Albums," arranged as he put it, "not necessarily in order, but close enough!" I think you'll enjoy it.
1. Sounds of Synanon
18. For Django
27. Catch Me!
JF: I guess we should start at the beginning with Joe Pass. What made you put him at the top of your list?
JW: I just loved the way that he formulated his lines. They finished so beautifully, and everything resolved so great from one change to another. It was just so smooth and swinging, I'd never heard any guitar player do it quite like that before. There were other guys, like Jimmy Raney, who had done things like that before, but this album was the first time I had ever heard guitar playing like that. That made me go back and check out other guitar players who played in a similar style like Jimmy Raney, Tal Farlow Billy Bean and Chuck Wayne... but that was that was the first record that got to me from that point of view.
JF: Interestingly, the three Joe Pass albums you selected were also three of his earliest recordings.
JW: Yeah, those are my favorites. There are others of Joe’s, like Intercontinental and the first Virtuoso album, but it was the three I listed that really made an impression on me. They may not necessarily be his best, although I think that they are... but I just love them. Actually, it was a toss up between For Django and Sounds of Synanon as to which I liked best, but I had heard Sounds of Synanon earlier, I think that was 1961, and that was the one that made the most lasting impression. I don't think For Django came out until '64.
2. Designed for You
13. Moonlight in Vermont
19. J.S. with Art Van Damme
24. Foursome, Part One
30. Easy Listening
JF: Johnny Smith weighs in very heavily on your list, with a total of seven albums.
JW: The first record I ever bought was Designed for You. I had never heard anything like that! I must have bought that a few years before the Sounds of Synanon, and the sound of that guitar was just incredible. Actually, it was Johnny's playing that made want to play music altogether.
JF: Have you ever seen him play live?
JW: No, I've met him several times, and I just adore him as a guy. I think he's a terrific cat ... just a wonderful man.
JF: I've often wondered if he was as tight musically in person as he was on record. By that I mean that his records were perfectly balanced three-minute pieces of music.
JW: Yeah, that’s true. I agree with you there. He was very organized and he had such a musical ear. He heard stuff that a lot of other guitarists didn't hear. His harmonic structures... the way he was able to play inner voices... I found out later that a lot of that came from guys like George Van Eps, Dick McDonough and Carl Kress... but Johnny was the first for my ears. This is all subjective mind you. He organized his arrangements so well and with such tremendous feeling, expression, dynamics and imagination! He had a wonderful ear.
JF: I sort of see what Johnny did as being the next logical step from George Van Eps. He was responding to the new music around him and working with guys like Stan Getz. He was a modernist.
JW: Well he played trumpet and violin as well, so he was really a complete musician. He didn't think of himself as just a guitar player. Guitar players often don't study music... they study the guitar. That’s why I like guys like Johnny. He was a complete musician. The song and the melody... the musical concepts on his records were more important than the guitar. Although, he certainly was a wonderful guitar player! Those voicings! No one had ever played those things on a guitar before. He was really the first one to organize it properly. His version of "My Romance" on Designed for You is just classic. It's like butter. You just can’t play it any prettier than that.
3. Interpretations (a.k.a. Fascinating Rhythm)
16. Swingin 'Guitar
28. Autumn in New York
JF: Let's move on to another guitarist who also did a rather memorable version of that song, Tal Farlow.
JW: Oh Yeah. That's from The Return, isn't it?
JF: You're right. When you talk about a unique, approach to voicings, you've got to talk about Tal.
JW. Absolutely. Although my interest in Tal when I first began studying guitar was the way in which he weaved his lines. Some of those lines were just uncanny. You can't play them on a guitar... but he didn't know that! Sort of like Wes Montgomery. He didn't know that you couldn't play like that with your thumb, but no one told him that he couldn't, so he did it!
JF: You would have to live a complete lifetime to learn how to play like either of those guys, because they were making it up as they went along and evolved as musicians.
JW. That's right, although you could say that about any great player. Of course to imitate their music is not the point. Tal was playing something that came from his whole existence. He heard a lot of Charlie Christian and Lester Young as well. He played those horn lines on guitar. He and Jimmy Raney were really the first to play bebop on the guitar. "Jazz" if you will... I don't know... bebop makes it sound kind of old fashioned. Even when I hear Tal today, he sounds very modern. There were other guys who did it before, but those two really codified it. No, make it three, I'd also have to put Chuck Wayne in that same category. Oh, you know who else I forgot to mention was Barney Kessel. He should also be added to that "post Charlie Christian" list. Barney was probably the first after Christian.
JF: I think you're right. They did successfully, what some other guitar players had been trying to do with varying degrees of success.
JW: There were some other guys too, like Bill DeArango and Remo Palmieri, who were around at the same time that you'd have to mention as well.
9. Jazz Winds From a New Direction
JF: I'm going to jump ahead on your list to Hank Garland, as I think in many respects he's an extension of Tal. Do you agree?
JW: Yes and no. I think he was perhaps more like Joe Pass or Billy Bean, although he certainly had a lot of country licks in there, too. He was sort of a bridge between country, jazz and blues. He made people realize how closely intertwined the various musics are. He did some other things I wasn't really crazy about like Velvet Guitar.
JF: I think what I hear in Garland that reminds me of Tal is the sound of the Red Norvo Trio. He picked up on that- It's all over Jazz Winds, and the comparison of Norvo and Farlow with Gary Burton and Hank Garland is pretty obvious. You play vibes too, don't you? (Jack affirms) You were probably listening to Burton as well.
JW: That’s true.
JF: I'm going to take this connection yet another step further... on to George Benson. Most people don't realize what an influence Garland was early in George's career. With the exception of Cookbook, it’s hard to find other completely satisfying jazz albums by Benson. His jazz career seemed to get side tracked.
JW: Well, there was Uptown on Columbia. That's a nice record, too, but Cookbook is my favorite.
JF: After that, jazz just got left behind on his recordings.
JW. That's unfortunate, but... whatever. He's making a lot of money, and he sings well.
JF. When you get a chance to hear him play straight ahead, he still is pretty amazing.
JW: George still gets out there and hears music. He really listens to what's going on. He still records with jazz players, and he'll do a few tracks here or there. That's cool. He's doing what Nat Cole did as well. Nat was one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time, and a lot of people were upset when he started to sing, but he had a great voice and ended up being just as influential a singer as a piano player. He's a great example of a guy who could do anything.
4. The Poll Winners
15. Music to Listen to Barney Kessel
JF: The Poll Winners by Barney Kessel is one that guitar players consistently refer to as their favorite Barney record.
JW: That's not the first record of his that I remember hearing. The first one was called The Contemporary Leaders, with Sonny Rollins. I was just a kid. When I heard it, I thought "This guy's incredible. I've got to check him out! " Then I found a recording of him with Jimmy Wyble doing ‘East of the Sun,’ 'All the Things You Are,' 'Crazy Rhythm' and 'Heat Wave’... those four tunes. Again, I thought he was incredible on that. Then I came across the Lionel Hampton recording of "Stardust.' That was done in 1945 or'46... I've forgotten which... and Barney was like Charlie Christian, only more so! When I say "like Charlie Christian,' I mean that you could hear him in Barney's playing, yet Barney had his own, very distinctive voice.
JF: It's interesting that you should mention Jimmy Wyble because there's another guy who had deep roots in country swing and blues, and of course Christian as well. With Barney coming from Oklahoma, all of that figures into his playing. Getting back to The Poll Winners, what makes this, of all his records, your favorite?
JW: I just love his imagination and sense of humor. He invented arrangements that were so interesting. He could play any tune... some of them corny... and make them work beautifully. Barney is another example of a great musician who just happened to play guitar.
JF: Sonny Rollins is another musician who could take trite songs like 'Three Little Words’ and find something in them that he could elevate to a different level.
5. Guitar Groove
JF: Rene' Thomas is someone that most guys are not aware of. You've really got to be into jazz guitar to know and appreciate what he could do.
JW: When I heard Guitar Groove, it just knocked me out. I said to myself, "Listen to that sound! What a sound!!" It was enormous!! It was like a horn.
JF: Of course, you've got to connect his playing to the influence of Jimmy Raney.
JW: Without a doubt, but he had his own voice, He was different than Jimmy in certain ways. At first listening, people think they're the same, but he had a fatter sound, a little more sustain, a little more of a "European" feel, if you will.
JF: I've been listening to the re-issue of Jimmy Raney in Paris, which was recorded in 1954... and you know that Thomas heard him working in France at that point.... then you listen to Guitar Groove recorded in 1960, and you can see where Thomas
was able to go with that style.
JW: He was definitely influenced by Jimmy Raney. So were guys like Jimmy Gourley.
23. J.R. with Stan Getz at Storyville
JF: A lot of people were introduced to Raney via that Stan Getz record. It's even remarkable today.
JW: That stuff is enormous. When I first heard that I just said, "What in the world?! Who is this guy who can play lines like that?" There was no sense of difficulty about it. Very few guys were able to do that. He was another guitar player who was a great musician first, and just happened to play the guitar. Do you know what I mean? He could have played the same thing if he was playing the piano, the trumpet... any instrument.
JF: That pretty much explains why he would go on to study the cello later in life ... always looking for new ways to express himself.
JW: I played a gig with Jimmy at this club called "Zinno's" for two weeks in 1986, 1 think it was. Just the two of us with a bass player. It was wonderful.
JF: One of the knocks on Raney was that he never developed the chordal side of his playing.
JW: Jimmy never really got too much into that area. That's O.K. though, nobody can do it all. He could do it, but that's not how he heard the music. It's not where he wanted to go with it. He liked to write, and wrote some classical music and some string quartets. Do you know that record Strings & Swings? That's all his writing. When I was with him in Louisville (Raney's hometown, ed.), I saw a lot of his manuscripts. He had tons of stuff that he was working on. He was like a brilliant scientist. The guy could talk about anything when he felt like it. He was interested in everything it seemed. His writing was just another part of his genius. He never really sought the limelight with his guitar playing, although for my taste he was surely one of the best players ever.
6. Full House
29. Boss Guitar
JF: Let's add Wes to that category, too.
JW: O.K. I saw him play a couple of times. He was a lovely guy. He had a wonderful spirit... very open and giving. His playing reflected that. He had great warmth, both as a person and a player. People do play the way they are, really. There are very few things that he did that aren't terrific... maybe a few of the early trio things, but Boss Guitar is fantastic. The Incredible Guitar of Wes Montgomery is also fantastic.
JF: How do you feel about the later stuff?
JW: The CTI stuff? (Creed Taylor productions for A&M and Verve records, ed.) It had its moments. I really didn't mind it
JF: I was listening to some of those pop records recently, and you're right There are some little things on them that just make you sort of smile to yourself. They weren't as bad as many critics made them out to be at the time. It makes you wonder, had he not died so young, where he might be today.
JW: That's a curious question and I've thought about it myself. He was a player at heart. He just wanted to play. By the time he was making those later records, he was making a lot of money for his family. That's nothing to sneeze at. For my money, I never put Wes in the category of the early Tal, Jimmy or Barney records. He was “post” that. He came in a little bit later. You could almost divide jazz guitar playing into "Charlie Christian - post Charlie Christian" and “Wes Montgomery - post Wes Montgomery."
JF: You're right. A lot of guys who got into jazz because of hearing Wes ended up going backwards to investigate all of the players that Wes talked about having listened to. Unfortunately, some of them only went forward and ended up in the nether world of pop-fusion. They really lacked substantial roots.
JW: I’ve got students who think that jazz guitar started with Pat Metheny! I've got to hip them to the fact that there was a lot more before that and there will hopefully be a lot after as well.
7. H. W. is a Dirty Guitar Player
26. The Real Howard Roberts
JF: As long as we're on the subject of teachers, Howard Roberts was a guy who had a tremendous influence on a whole generation of guitar students.
JW: I sort of place him in that same time period as Wes. He was post Jimmy and Tal, even though he may have been the same age.
JF: I was just reading a bio on him, and he was older than I had thought and had been playing for longer than I realized.
JW: That's true, but it's not so much their age as where they are in terms of development, historically speaking. He was a Barney Kessel aficionado for years. Then, he definitely developed his own stuff. He was an interesting character, too. He did a lot of recording, and was in the L.A. studios for years and years doing all kinds of music. His playing reflected that. He had a lot of different things in his playing. Some of it was pop-ish, some of it was rock-ish. Some of it was avant-garde. Antelope Freeway, for example... all kinds of bizarreness in his playing. Then he could play the most beautiful ballad with the most incredible chord solos. He could do it all. He was one of those guys who was a real accomplished player.
JF: I look at him as having three distinct periods in his recording career. The "Verve" period, the "Capitol" period and then what I'd call his "late" period for lack of a better term. You can chart very different changes in his playing.
JW: The Capitol period being those pop things that he did?
JF: Yeah, but also H. W. is a Dirty Guitar Player was on Capitol, so I guess you've got to divide the Capitol era into two parts... jazz and pop. Towards the end of his stay at Capitol, they were trying to push him into a pop bag to cash in on the success that Wes Montgomery was having with pop records.
JW: You mean like Something's Cooking where he does "Hard Day's Night" and "Theme From the Lonesome Cowboy?" That kind of stuff? Here's another one, Sounds, where he does "You Are the Sunshine of my Life" and "We've Only Just Begun." Even on those records, as corny as they may be, he still comes through. He got such a warm sound and really some of those songs aren't so bad, like "We've Only Just Begun." It's a definite period piece, but man, he could play it so great and it was terrific jazz. Still, I hear what you're saying.
8. (Various re-issues w/Stephane Grappelli)
12. Jazz From Paris
JF: You've listed two Django compilations. One early and one late. You're covering all your bases.
JW: Well, Django's recorded output is so enormous. It's impossible to say what "album" I like, because he didn't make albums. These were all 78s. I have a lot of the re-issues. Some of the tracks that knock me our are "Georgia," "Rose Room," "When Day is Done," stuff with Stephane Grappelli. Stuff from around 1937. The first time I heard that, I almost cried it was so good.
JF: Did you ever want to play in that style?
JW: I'd fool with it, but could never do it all that well. I could play the solos... they're not all that hard to play. It's the feel of it... the intensity of it that had such an impact. Maybe I'm wrong, but I never really tried to play like anybody. I've tried to get the spirit of someone as best I could, but I never really copied their solos and tried to play just like them. That's silly. I don't see the point in that. You end up incorporating all these great players in your playing anyway. I've listened as much to Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins and Oscar Peterson as much as I've listened to anything, and hopefully they show up in my playing as much as any guitarist does.
JF: It really is more of a subconscious thing. What do you think about the later electric guitar sides from Django? A lot of people are reassessing that period after having heard it put down for many years. Now they're seeing him as one of the pioneering electric guitar players as well.
JW: It's great. It was really avant-garde for its day, wasn't it? In fact, it still sounds like that today when I listen to it. If you were to hear something like that on the radio today... if the rhythm section were changed a bit... it would sound brand new... even futuristic, almost. That last record he made Jazz From Paris, that's a bittersweet record. There's some very sad, very touching stuff. He must have known he was going to die. It's quite remarkable. The record can be depressing if you're in a bad mood. I had to listen to that record at least ten times before I realized what he was up to. I was so used to hearing his older stuff where he's just swingin' away... playing all those notes. When it hit me what he was doing here, it hit me almost like Coltrane. The first time I heard Coltrane's music from his later period, I didn't like it much. LPs like Meditations and A Love Supreme.... but there was something about it that made me come back and listen to it again. Then I heard it yet again and I liked it a little more. Now, I think that it’s some of the most incredible music ever. It's not as simple as liking it or not liking it. Sometimes you have to learn to like it. We are not born with an innate sense of what's great and what isn't. We have to learn that.
JF: That reminds me of something that I had heard about Coleman Hawkins. Shortly before he died, there was a noticeable difference in his playing. It became harder and more sparse. It was as if he knew he only had a limited number of notes left to play. He knew he had to make them all count.
JW: That last record of Django's was the same thing. People who knew his old records weren't prepared for that. They wanted him to play the old way. You can't be the "old" anything. It's always changing. If you have to play the same way, why bother? Even if you wanted to you couldn't. Your life changes, your energy is different, your spirit is different. There is not a single artist that I've ever heard who has stayed exactly the same throughout their career.
14. Morning Mist
JF: The guitar world lost a major talent recently with the death of Chuck Wayne.
JW: I got to know him pretty well. He was a wonderful cat. There was nobody who could play the guitar like this man. He could do anything.
JF: I've always contended that he was never really captured well on record.
JW: I'd have to agree. That was basically true. There were, of course, some records here and there that were just as great as could be.
JF: I've never heard Morning Mist. What makes that your favorite Chuck Wayne album?
JW: Maybe it was the way it was recorded. Maybe it was his maturity.. his depth finally came to the fore. Maybe he just had a better budget to work with. Who knows? He had a chance to stretch out a little bit. Some of the tracks on that record are classics. You can't get any better than that. Gorgeous playing! Fantastic!! Unbelievable!!! "Someone to Watch Over Me"... even if you can play it, the imagination that he put into it and the feeling were just beyond words. I hung out and played with him on many occasions, and I can assure that this guy could do anything. He could play chord solos with anybody. Some of his early records, like The Jazz Guitarist and String Fever... those lines he played were really innovative, and he was doing that back in the '40s! He was the same generation as Jimmy, Tal and Johnny. I should separate Johnny from that group, because Johnny was so different from all of them. You almost have to put Johnny in his own category.
JOHN PISANO & BILLY BEAN
21. Take Your Pick
JF: You only have one duo record on your list, Take Your Pick. That's one that collectors scour used record stores for and they are willing to pay a good buck for it.
JW: I'm sure. It's a great record. I have a tape of them (Pisano & Bean) jamming that John set me. They were rehearsing for that record and Making it. There's some enormous playing on that one as well. John’s a great cat, and Billy Bean... you talk about an innovator that nobody knows about. This guy was playing that stuff before Joe Pass played it. Joe wasn't recorded as early as Billy was. Billy was recorded in the '50s with Charlie Ventura.
JF: In the late '50s and early '60s, everyone was saying that Billy was going to be the next big guy.
JW: Well certainly nobody played guitar like that! Nobody's played guitar like that since!
JF: It's a shame that he disappeared from the scene.
JW: He's almost like the missing link between Tal, Jimmy, Chuck and Wes. It's a big jump from the first three to Wes. There had to be something in between. I think that's where Billy Bean was. That articulation was exactly the way Joe Pass played and is the same as Pat Martino plays now. That staccato, hard edged bop thing.
22. C. C. with Benny Goodman
JF: What was your first exposure to Charlie Christian?
JW: My cousin was a big jazz fan and that's how I heard Charlie Christian on the Benny Goodman records. That's also how I heard Django and Johnny Smith. I couldn't have been more than 14. He (Christian) certainly altered the history of jazz guitar for all eternity. There's no question about that. His playing was so unique. You know, it's funny, but we think we are so advanced now, but that was 1939, 1940. There are a lot of people still alive today who were born before that. When you think that the electric guitar was invented in someone's lifetime, and it's still here... we haven't come all that far, really. So we're really only talking 57 or 58 years there. That's not even a full lifetime. It's sort of a bizarre thought, isn't it?
25. Who’s Who?
JF: It's interesting that on your list you go from Charlie Christian, and what stands as the beginning of the electric guitar in jazz for most people, to John Scofield, the most contemporary player that you've listed. He's kind of the "odd man out" on this list.
JW: I love that record. I just think that he plays great on that. There's some wonderful music, great songs and his playing is really unique. He's much more jazz oriented on this record. It's not really "fusion-y," whatever that is. I've played with him on a number of occasions. We've done some quartet things and played some clubs. We played Boston and did Sweet Basil in New York once or twice. He’s got a lot more jazz in his playing than most people know. He's really pretty straight ahead with just a little more of an electric sound... a lot of blues licks, too.
JF: Conversely, you've got a reputation as a mainstream player, but you're more inclined to take it "out' than a lot of your fellow guitarists are. I can see where you and Scofield could meet nicely in the middle.
JW: Yeah, we did. We had a nice musical experience. We really got along famously. No problem at all. I'm not as keen on some of his later things, although I still like them. You know, I forgot to mention a few John Abercrombie records as well. His record Timeless is awesome.
JF: Now you've got two guys who are sort of out there.
JW: John's not really out there... is he? I thought he's kind of like Jim Hall.
JF: Well, Jim is getting farther and farther out himself with each new record, but I think it's a good thing. He's really expanding his scope by concentrating on composition.
31. Live at the Village Vanguard
JF: Let's wrap it up with Kenny Burrell and a great live album. He's probably recorded more jazz guitar albums than any other player, living or dead. To his credit, he's never made a record that made you think he was selling out. He's always maintained his standards.
JW: That was recorded in '58 or '59. There's some great playing on that record. What a sound he got.
JF: I like hearing Kenny in a trio setting like that. It's like Barney and The Poll Winners. It gives you a clearer opportunity to hear how they are thinking. Sometimes that gets lost in larger arrangements. The trio format really keeps them thinking all of the time.
JW: I know what you mean., Another great album of Kenny’s is the one with John Coltrane. I could have easily given you another twenty records if I'd thought about it a little more. I mention one and then I think of another. It's just impossible to pick only ten. Someone was interviewing me recently and asked, "if you could only take four or five records with you to a desert island, what would they be?" That was really tough. I said I'd take one Johnny Smith record, probably Designed For You or maybe Easy Listening, a recording of Chopin etudes, Mahler's Fourth Symphony, and any record by Elis Regina.
JF: That's quite a mix. Elis Regina is one of my favorite singers. For that matter, Mahler is my favorite composer.
JW: They're all wonderful.. These are the things which make life worth living. I remember crying after hearing Johnny Smith's record Favorites. My friend asked me, “What’s the matter?" I said, "I just know that I'll never be that great. I just know that. No matter how much I practice, or how hard I try I'll never' be like that.” He said something which was very helpful to me, especially because I was still a kid. He said, “No you won't be great like that. You'll be great in your own way!" He was right. I don't have to be Johnny Smith or Chopin or anybody else. I can just be me! Some people might think that it's a lousy job, but what can I say.. somebody's got to do it!
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Interview - Jack Wilkins' Top Ten