(Very Flattering Comments by Good Friend Joe Giglio)
Jan 1, 2000
The only problem in writing about Jack Wilkins is where to begin! Mr. Wilkins is perhaps the greatest proponent of the art of Jazz Guitar on the scene today. His knowledge and command of the guitar is so vast, so complete that he is in the words of the great Duke Ellington: "beyond category".
To describe Jack Wilkins as a 'complete guitarist' would be accurate, but a vast understatement, and a gross oversimplification. Having been aware of Jack's playing for over twenty years I am still amazed at the depth of his musical knowledge, the range of his playing ability and that regardless of what he is playing, one will be convinced that this must be what he specializes in.
As a single note soloist, Jack possesses flawless technique, a swinging, unerring rhythmic sense, and most importantly, an ability to improvise over chord changes, that reveals a deep harmonic knowledge and originality.
As an accompanist, Jack is appropriate, whether in a rhythm section, or as the rhythm section. He plays for the soloist. The long list of vocalists and instrumental soloists who have chosen Jack to be their accompanist, often times the only musician supporting them, attests to his abilities in this area.
As a chord melodist/soloist Jack is in a class by himself. He has the uncanny ability (due no doubt, to countless hours of practice), to harmonize melodies on the spot, and turn them into showpieces. I recall listening to Jack and Jimmy Raney one night in a New York club, and being transfixed by a multi- chorus, chord solo improvisation on "Body and Soul" played by Jack. The entire solo was done in five and six string 'block' chords, with no single lines. It was melodic, original, spontaneous, and damned near impossible
As a "legit" guitarist, Jack is a throw back to the days of Tony Mottola, Johnny Smith, George Van Epps, George Barnes, Allen Reuss and George M. Smith. That is, he is a fabulous sight-reader, and a master of a wide variety of styles and genres. An example of these attributes is Jack's association with Pianist Claude Bolling, with whom Jack performed the very difficult classical guitar piece "Suite for Jazz Piano and Classical Guitar".
Jack was busy as a studio musician, and Broadway orchestra player on the New York scene in the seventies and eighties, and continues to receive 'calls', despite the relative lack of work in that area as of late, due to the gradual disappearance of the New York session scene.
Jack's research into the history of Jazz in and of itself would be a life's work for most anyone. He has delved into the 'how's and why's', and has integrated much of what he has discovered into his own playing. Jack has studied the early jazz guitarists, such as Oscar Aleman, Bus Etri, Eddie Lang, and of course Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, as well as the modern era players such as Jimmy Raney, Tal Farlow, Johnny Smith, Billy Bean, Chuck Wayne, and Joe Pass. He is most likely the foremost authority on the music of the great Johnny Smith. I have heard him on many occasions play actual 'Johnny Smith' transcriptions, and also play extemporaneously in that style. Jack can play convincingly like Django Reinhardt (he maintains that it is easiest to play 'Django' music with the first two fingers only), and plays 'Batucada' style guitar, a la the incomparable Baden Powell, like a native Brazilian. His research though has not been limited to guitarists. Jack has thoroughly studied the music of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Freddie Hubbard and Clifford Brown, to name a few. Yet when you hear Jack Wilkins play, you hear Jack Wilkins play, not a derivation of anyone, or anything.
Jack's resume reads like a 'who's who' of jazz. It might be easier to list who he has not played with. Some highlights would be: Charles Mingus, Buddy Rich, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillispie, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Zoot Sims, Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Bob Brookmeyer, Manhattan Transfer, Tal Farlow, Jimmy Raney, Chuck Wayne, Phil Woods, Sonny Fortune, Michael and Randy Brecker, Jullius Hemphill, Claude Bolling, Barry Miles, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jr., Mel Torme, Morgana King, Charles Aznevour, and so many others.
To achieve a true insight into any musician's artistry we must examine his/her artistic output. Let us begin with Jack's recordings.
In 1972 Jack recorded with saxophonist Paul Jeffrey, on Jeffrey's album "Watershed" (Mainstream Records). Jeffrey, a protégé of Thelonious Monk, and a disciple of John Coltrane had composed a set of very challenging, modern compositions, and enlisted Jack Wilkins as the sole chordal player, and featured soloist. Jack not only met the challenge, his performances on this recording are unsurpassed, and are perhaps the most advanced and modern of any "Post-Bop" guitarist up to the present time.
Jack's performance so impressed the producers that he was asked to record an album under his own leadership. The album resulting from these sessions is the legendary "Windows" (Mainstream Records). This album is nothing less than revolutionary. Never before had a Jazz Guitarist attempted, and succeeded in recording such a modern and harmonically demanding program. Chick Corea's "Windows", Coltrane's "Naima", Wayne Shorter's "Pinnoccio".and Freddie Hubbard's "Red Clay", appear to be standard fare for Jack Wilkins. He displays a harmonic sophistication and understanding, along with total command of single note and chordal playing, and a modern "reverb" sound that was years ahead of it's time. This album was recently transcribed and published by Hal Leonard Publications.
1977 brought two recordings for the Chiaroscuro label; "Merge" and "You Can't Live Without It". The former features exciting performances by Jack and his band mates: Randy Brecker, Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette. Again Jack chooses a program that would scare off most players, and makes it all seem effortless. Of particular note is his duet performance with Bassist Gomez on Chick Corea's "Five Hundred Miles High". "You Can't Live Without It" was recorded in the wee hours after a gig at New York's "Sweet Basil" jazz club. Here Jack leads an all star ensemble including the likes of Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, and Al Foster. An all out "blowing session", Jack goes "toe to toe" with the "Brecker Brothers" and great improvised Jazz is the outcome. These two sessions have been re-issued on CD as "Merge" on Chiaroscuro.
Creed Taylor produced two recordings of Jack Wilkins' music in 1984: "Captain Blued" and "Opal"(Greene Street Records). These albums feature Jack with the late, legendary pianist Albert Dailey, and the great alto saxophonist Phil Woods. Jack composed a number of tunes for these sessions, and his writing is mature and inventive. With strong harmonic support from Dailey, Jack really steps out as a soloist/leader here. These albums have been re-released as a compilation entitled "Mexico" (CTI Records), and should have made Jack a star.
"Call Him Reckless" on the Music Masters label, features Jack in a trio setting with bassist Steve LaSpina and drummer Mike Clark. Recorded in 1989, it is indeed a case of reckless abandon, as Jack stretches the boundaries of "Jazz Guitar", and dispels the notion that "Jazz Guitar" is a category separate from "Jazz Music". On this CD Jack shows us that he is a "Jazz Musician"! The program begins with an up-tempo reading of "If I Were A Bell", which is such a complete performance that it leads one to wonder what could be next. The answer to the question is "Manha De Carnival", where Jack displays a true command of the Brazilian style. He begins sans bass and drums, and it is obvious that although he shines as a soloist with the rhythm section, here he is the rhythm section and the soloist, with no sacrifices on either front. Powerful performances of Joe Henderson's "Isotope", Miles Davis' "Nardis" and Bill Evans' "B Minor Waltz" carry on Jack's tradition of choosing songs directly from the modern jazz repertoire.
1990 finds Jack in a true "group" setting on the Music Masters CD "Alien Army". A working band consisting of Jack Wilkins-guitars, Marc Puricelli-keyboards, Mike Formanek-bass, and Mike Clark-drums, this group performed regularly around New York City and developed a loyal following. The CD features original compositions, all but one with Jack as either the sole or collaborative composer. The music is fresh and inventive, and employs synthesizer sounds, as well as processed guitar tones: all done in service to the music.
In the mid-1990's Jack was an integral part of the New York based ensemble: "Five Guitars Play Charles Mingus", both as a featured soloist, and as the author of many brilliant arrangements. It was in this group that Jack began an association with the dynamic pianist Kenny Drew Jr. The 1996 recording "Keep In Touch" on the "Claves Jazz" label chronicles their unique rapport and interaction. I had the pleasure to attend a number of their duo gigs at New York's "Zinno" club and was consistently knocked out by their telepathic, complex, yet swinging, spontaneous, "non-arrangements".
1998's "Trioart" on "Arabesque Jazz" is self-explanatory. Here we have a mature, yet still searching artist at the top of his game. In 1996 we find Jack Wilkins to be the logical realization of the great promise he displayed twenty-five years earlier. The playing here is so smooth and rhythmically grooved, that I think of the album as one extended performance in eight parts.
In 1999 Jack flew to London to record for the "String Jazz" label. Recording for the first time in the "organ trio" format, the resulting CD "Bluesin'" is a blend of dark, introspective improvisations and joyful swinging expression. The juxtaposition of Jack's liquid guitar tone with the swirling, ethereal organ sounds creates a sonic palette that allows him to embark on linear excursions of the purest and freest kind. Of special note are two Wilkins' compositions "No Smokin'" and "Mr. M.C.", two blues romps with semi-atonal 'Bop' melodies, and "no holds barred" improvising. Mr. Wilkins can play the Blues! (A second disk from these sessions is scheduled for release in early 2000).
The above are, to the best of my knowledge, the sum of Jack Wilkins' recordings as a leader. The music contained within, and the impact it has had on a generation of jazz guitarists, stands as a remarkable achievement. However, Jack has recorded many other times as a featured sideman, and as an ensemble player, starting in 1969 on Barry Miles first album, right on through 1999's tribute to Tal Farlow: "We Remember Tal" on the "J Curve Records" label. Along the way there have been recordings with Charles Mingus, Buddy Rich, Julius Hemphill, Bob Brookmeyer, Albert Dailey, Chet Baker, Gunther Schuller, "Project G 7", and too many others to mention. (See "Selected Discography" below).
The recorded history of Jack Wilkins tells a powerful story, and affords us the opportunity to examine, and most importantly, enjoy jazz guitar at it's best. However, in and of itself it does not (as one might expect) show us the length and breadth of Jack Wilkins' music. Hearing Jack performing "live" is an unforgettable, and at times mind numbing experience.
I would like to share some personal recollections of Jack's performances. I first heard Jack via his ground breaking "Windows" album in the early 1970's. Shortly thereafter, and quite by chance, I tuned into a Public Television broadcast from Chicago (at that time Jack was on the road with Buddy Rich) featuring Jack and his trio (only possible due to an electric storm and a UHF antenna). As I was just beginning my study of the jazz guitar, I watched and listened with great concentration. This was like the "Windows" album 'Live'! The intense focus and commitment Jack brought to his performance, along with his skillful playing, left a lasting impression on me. Half- way into the broadcast the signal failed, and it wasn't until years later that I was able to learn more about this broadcast from Jack.
In 1981 a singer, with whom I performed, brought me to a gig at New York's "Seventh Avenue South" jazz club, featuring vocalist Jane Blackstone, backed by the Sam Burtis big band. Jack was 'subbing' for the regular guitarist, having received a last minute call. The charts were very complex, and had never been seen by Jack. To quote Sam Burtis, as he introduced the band: "and on guitar Jack Wilkins, who is reading his ass off!" This though, was not the point of the story. Sam asked Jack to call a tune as a featured number. Jack called Coltrane's "Giant Steps" at a burning tempo, twenty choruses later the crowd filed out, shaking their heads in disbelief.
In 1984 Jack received a grant from the "National Endowment for the Arts". He used this award to fund a series of concerts with himself as the featured artist. I attended a number of these performances, and what ensued was the embodiment of an artist's potential, when given a forum in which to express it. Jack assembled a roster of musicians (varying from concert to concert), with whom he was able to reach a deep improvisational level The programs ranged from ensemble performances, to duo segments with pianist Albert Dailey, to extended solo guitar pieces. Jack's original compositions were featured throughout, along with a repertoire of standards, 'Jazz' standards, classical pieces, and Brazilian songs performed on the nylon string guitar.
Around 1989, or 1990 I attended a gig at the "Angry Squire" club in New York City, featuring the duo of Jack and Joe Puma, two great players with very different approaches to the guitar. The result of this pairing was an evening of memorable music filled with chance taking, surprise, role reversal, and an abundance of real improvisation. In fact the performance was only about improvising. It was as if upon playing the first notes together they knew that however far they took the music, there would be a rope to pull them back, and a net to catch them. As much as I am familiar with the playing of these two giants, there were numerous instances when I mistook who was playing what. At times Jack adopted Joe's contrapuntal, linear approach to comping and chord soloing, and at times Joe's single note solos incorporated Jack's harmonically stretched out concepts, and driving intensity. At all times the music sounded as if arrangements were being played, yet nothing was planned. This performance occupies a place in my memory reserved for great moments.
In the mid-1990's Jack recorded two CD's with vocalist/composer Nora York (See discography). They also performed frequently as a duo. One memorable evening they performed a program made up exclusively of the songs of "singer-songwriter" Tim Hardin, at New York's "Knitting Factory". To hear Jack's chordal, and at times, linear accompaniments on songs of limited harmonic foundation, and to experience his solo improvisations, was to witness a "high wire" balancing act, where 'too much' would obscure the delicate and simple beauty of these songs, and 'too little' would reveal their sparsity. Jack traversed the wire end to end: no net.
Having known Jack Wilkins for many years, as a fan, student, colleague and friend, I have witnessed his musical greatness first hand. I hope that this look into his career has given you, the reader, some insight into his vast musical accomplishments. Rest assured: "The Best is Yet to Come"
- Joe Giglio
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