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Interview- Jack Wilkins
Jack Wilkins
On his recordings and his approach to making them
by Joe Barth

Jack was in Pittsburgh for the Guitar Workshop at Duquesne University
and we sat down to talk about his approach to recording.

JB: Reflect upon the recording of Something Like a Bird with Charlie
Mingus.
JW: I was friends with Mingus. I used to go to his house. He would
have some ideas and we would try to play it.

JB: Just the two of you?
JW: Sometimes, other times others were there. It was fun. Paul Jeffrey, who had worked with Monk, and Eddie Gomez among others. I had met Paul earlier and he wanted to do a record similar to what Sonny Rollins did with The Bridge. He knew I could read and his music had some serious reading to it. I went to his house numerous time to rehearse and we later recorded it. The album is called Watershed on the Mainstream label.

JB: Out of curiosity, what kind of guitar were you playing then?
JW: I was playing a Gibson L-7 because my L-5 had just gotten stolen.

JB: What did you appreciate most about working with Mingus?
JW: I found him very likeable. He was witty and funny. I loved playing
with him.

JB: Let me ask about some of your other albums, for example, Captain
Blued.
JW: Creed Taylor called me at 10 o'clock one morning and said he
wanted me
to record an album right now (laughter). He picked me up in a limo and
took me out to New Jersey to Rudy Van Gelder's studio and I recorded an
album with Chet Baker, Herbert Laws and some other musicians. Don Sebesky wrote the arrangements.

JB: The CTI guys . . .
JW: Yeah. Well, as it worked out, Jim Hall was supposed to do the date and Jim had a contract dispute with Creed, so they called me. As it worked out the problem was settled with Jim and he came back and overdubbed over my parts on most of the tunes. I was left playing on a couple of tunes and that was fine. Well, after that Creed loved my playing and asked me to do a record for him. It was a double record called Captain Blued and Opal. Laterwhen it was released on CD in 1992 it was called Mexico.


JB: Talk about Merge in 1977 with Randy and Michael Brecker, Jack,
DeJohnette and Eddie Gomez.
JW: I had just moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan and this was a very
productive time for me. I was playing in lots of jazz clubs and doing a
lot of recording. Eddie Gomez and I were doing a lot of duets gigs at this one club. The club wanted me to bring in a quartet one weekend and so I added Jack DeJohnette and Randy Brecker with Eddie and me. It was great. Fred Miller of Chiaroscuro Records heard it and wanted to record us. Those guys are killer musicians and it is a great record.
Later we did You Can't Live Without It in 1977 with Michael and
Randy Brecker, Phil Markowitz, Jon Burr and Al Foster. When it was released as a CD the two albums were combined. Michael and Randy are such great musicians and play so well together.

JB: Talk about your work with Bob Brookmeyer in 1979.
JW: Jim Hall knew of my playing and he was good friends with Bob
Brookmeyer. Bob was putting together a quartet and he wanted Jim to
play in it and if Jim couldn't do it could he recommend someone for it and Jim recommended me. It was a great experience. We recorded the record live and it is one of my favorite records.

JB: Call Him Reckless came out in 1989.
JW: I was doing this steady gig with a clarinet player, Ron Odrich,
the owner of Music Masters came by one night and loved my playing and asked if I wanted to make some recordings. I said, "Of course!" and decided to do a trio album. I was playing with at the time, Steve LaSpina, bass and Mike Clark, drums. I'm into anagrams where you, for example, take the letters of your name and scramble them up to make other names. So Call Him Reck is an anagram for Michael Clark. So I just finished it off with Call Him Reckless. I like the record but it was a little unfocused. It was a little fusiony in places and traditional in others.
Alien Army came out on the same label in 1990 and was recorded at a
very bad time of my life. I had two guitars stolen and was attacked on the street and life just wasn't going well for me then. I wanted to make a very personal album and so I spent hours and hours composing, recomposing, and rehearsing this music. Some people loved it and some hated it. It still sounds fresh to me after 15 years.

JB: Let me ask about Trio Art that came out in 1998?
JW: It was devised from the trio sounds of those Barney Kessel and
Bill Evans trios. Trio is my favorite format and that record reminded just how dynamic the trio can be. That is one of my favorite albums.

JB: Just The Two Of Us with Gene Bertoncini was recorded on a cruise
ship in 2000.
JW: Gene and I have been friends for years. When we were playing
together I knew right away that this was going to be a great record. Gene is so good in terms of dynamics, interplay, well constructed solos and Gene accompanies so tastefully. It was a lot of fun to make. Gene and I just laughed and laughed during that time.

JB: Heading North in 2001 also made on a cruise ship?
JW: Yeah, Jimmy Bruno and I were on the QEII and we had a lot of fun
making that duet record.

JB: Let me ask about Reunion in 2001 with Randy and Michael Brecker,
Jack DeJohnette, Eddie Gomez.
JW: I brought the guys all back together again but it was sure hard. I
sent the music to all the guys and we just went in with no rehearsal and recorded the tunes. We also didn't have much time to get the sound right in the studio. But still, there are some nice things there.

JB: I want to move to your approach to playing when making a
recording. Talk about what goes on in your mind as you solo over a tune like "All the Things You Are".
JW: It depends upon the tempo. At a moderate tempo I don't think about
what I am doing. I just embellish the melody. Sometimes I'm in close to the melody and sometimes I take it out far. I also want the rhythm to be strong.
The rhythm is what makes it swing. It always has to swing and I don't
mean old fashion swing. Swing is a vague term. To me it means the music flows right and natural. Another thing is to make sure the climax of your solo matches the climax of the tune itself.

JB: How hard do you try to be original while your soloing?
JW: I don't try to be original, I just hope it comes out that way.

JB: How much of your playing is truly spontaneous?
JW: That's a good question. I don't truly know, maybe all of it, maybe
none of it. I have things I play that's comfortable for me. Sometimes I
surprise myself with what I play. I don't think that anyone can be completely spontaneous all the time. Music is like a language. We have our words and we have to make do with it.

JB: What are some traps that guitar players get themselves into?
JW: Chops, that's the biggest problem that guitar players have.

JB: Not enough . . .
JW: No, too much chops. "Watch this technical display, now watch this
other technical display." People are impressed with this and it is
impressive. But, so is a circus person throwing up 15 arrows in the air and catching them on his nose. How much can you watch of that? How much can you hear of that? It is best to display your chops and still be musical.

JB: Tell us about the Benedetto guitar that you use in recording?
JW: I have two Fratellos. My first was made in 1988 and the second was
made in 1997. The first is a one pickup and I wanted a two pickup guitar with a slightly smaller neck, so Bob made the second for me. I like the two pickups because I like to get a variety of sounds.

JB: What other guitars do you have and use?
JW: I have a couple of Rich DiCarlo nylon strings that I love. One is
a 32 fret guitar. I also have a 1961 Fender Telecaster that I use. I have an old Gibson L-7 that I use around the house but I never use it on gigs. I have a Gibson Tal Farlow that I use once in a while.

JB: What amp do you use?
JW: I use the Acoustic Image Claris with the Razor's Edge speaker. I
really love that sound. I have owned just about every amp there is and I was never completely happy with any one of them. But, I just love how this combination just punches the notes out. The notes have a meaty sound and the response is so quick on the amp. This is what I use all the time.

JB: What do want from a bass player when recording? Who are some of
the great bass players that you played with?
JW: My friend Steve LaSpina will ask me at the beginning of the gig,
"What do want tonight, time or changes?" Melody or rhythm? I want time and changes as well as interplay, and dynamics. Dynamics are so important. Without dynamics, music is so bland. Music without dynamics is like someone talking monotone and that puts you right to sleep. It sounds amateurish without dynamics. That is what I loved about Bill Evans and Jim Hall. They had sensational dynamics.

JB: What do you want from a drummer in the studio?
JW: I want a crisp sound. I also want a cymbal that doesn't wash out
everything. You want a cymbal that is light and has a groove to it,
that swings. I also like a tight high-hat.

JB: What do you mean tight?
JW: How the drummer hits it with his stick. This is what I like about
Jack DeJohnette and Joe LaBarbara and some others. They all have a tight high hat sound.
I personally like playing on top of the beat. A beat is actually a long
time. I want to be on the end of the beat or on top of the beat rather
than behind the beat. That to me swings more. Elvin Jones always played on top of the beat. I loved playing with Elvin. I also want a drummer who doesn't hog the bandstand or tries to take over. I like a drummer who really listens.

JB: What do want from a producer of your CDs at the session?
JW: Honestly, very little (laughter)! Because I know what I want to play, I don't need him to tell me. What is best is that the producer and I collaborate in the beginning and plan out the album. It's the artist's album, he should have the say of what he wants recorded. In big production albums, with strings, horns and voices, that's different. But, for the jazz trio or quartet album, the artist should have his say.

JB: What do you want from a recording engineer at your sessions?
JW: To cooperate, whatever I say goes (laughter)! I don't want the
engineer telling me that my guitar sound is too dark, or to take off the reverb. He is there to make me happy. I don't want to be in a position where I am suppose to make him happy.

JB: What kind of album would you like to make next?
JW: I want to make a solo guitar album. I play a lot of solo guitar
gigs and would like to record some of what I do there. But there isn't much of a market for a solo guitar record. Although, I think that is changing.

JB: What is your method of discovering new voicings on the guitar?
JW: I listen to other players and other instruments and then I try to
play what I hear on the guitar..

JB: How has your playing on records changed over the years?
JW: It is more consistent now. I am more confident about what I do
now. I'm also more adaptable. I can almost adapt to any musical situation or amp that is rented for me.

JB: What advice would you give to young jazz guitarists who hopes to
someday make a record?
JW: Learn the fundamentals, scales, arpeggios, sight reading, that
kind of thing. Some guitarists think that if they know a few chords and some hot scales that they can play. Work on the things that make you a complete musician with patience and understanding.

SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY

1973 Windows Mainstream
1977 Merge Chiaroscuro
1989 Call Him Reckless Music Masters
1990 Alien Army Music Masters
1992 Mexico CTI
1998 Trio Art Arabesque
2000 Just the Two of Us Chiaroscuro
(with Gene Bertoncini)
2001 Heading North String Jazz
2001 Reunion Chiaroscuro
2004 Christmas Jazz GuitarMel Bay Records

DVD
Jimmy Bruno and Jack Wilkins:
Live from the Theatre in Washington Mel Bay

(Dr. Barth, a pastor in Western Pennsylvania who's hobby is jazz
guitar, can be contacted at PJosephBarth@aol.com)