If you are ever in the mood to hear some great solo Jazz Guitar on a Sunday or Monday evening in Manhattan, just head over to Le Madeleine on the corner of 9th Ave and 43rd street (http://lemadeleine.com/). There is no cover charge, and you can just get a drink or dessert at the bar, or enjoy their reasonably-priced Bistro menu. Most weeks, you will get to hear the great Gene Bertoncini playing his unique style of jazz on a classical guitar. Once in a while, when Bertoncini is traveling, he calls upon another great player to fill in for him such as Paul Meyers, or in this case, Jack Wilkins.
Guitarist Jack Wilkins (http://jackwilkins.com) has been a part of the New York jazz scene for more than four decades. His flawless technique and imaginative chordal approach have inspired collaborations with Charles Mingus, Michael and Randy Brecker, Stan Getz, Phil Woods, Chet Baker, Jimmy Raney, Bob Brookmeyer, Buddy Rich, and some of the greatest singers like Sarah Vaughan, Mel Torme, Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, Manhattan Transfer, and others. In the liner notes of his 1978 album “The Bob Brookmeyer Small Band: Live at Sandy’s”, Brookmeyer calls Wilkins “the most imaginative guitarist to have emerged since Jim Hall”, and continues to say: “Jack is a musician who has all the tools to do anything he wants. And he can sound any number of different ways.”
Hearing Jack Wilkins play solo guitar in such an intimate setting is an unforgettable experience. Playing his custom-built Benedetto archtop electric guitar through a small AER amplifier, Wilkins’ guitar sound was warm and inviting, appealing both to the most oblivious diners, and to those of us who came especially to enjoy the music. There were quite a few prominent musicians in the audience all listening intently, including Sue Mingus, the widow of the great Charles Mingus (with whom Wilkins recorded two albums), guitarists Carl Barry and James Chirillo, bassists Dylan Taylor and Jon Burr (who played on Wilkins’ famous “You Can’t Live Without It” album, available on Wilkins’ website as part of the “Merge” reissue).
Wilkins seemed to have an endless supply of stunning arrangements to a wide variety of standards. “You Go to My Head” got a rubato treatment with lots of harmonic twists and pianistic inner-voice movements, while an up-tempo “I Remember You” was a springboard for a wonderful single-line solo and some walking-bass and comping in the Joe Pass tradition. Although Wilkins’ solo style is truly innovative and unique, he is well aware of everything that came before him. He teaches a popular course on jazz guitar history, and is one of the few guitarists around today who has actually shared the bandstand with the likes of Jimmy Raney, Tal Farlow, Chuck Wayne and Barney Kessel and once in a while he will pay tribute to one of them by using one of their signature licks or chord sequences – all of which blend into an organic musical statement that is all his own.
The evening also included some beautiful ballad arrangements. “Polkadots and Moonbeams”, “My One and Only Love”, and “These Foolish Things” kept modulating and changing moods and colors as Wilkins moved from arranged sections to improvisations and back, always keeping things fresh and exciting. “When Sunny Gets Blue” got a Bossa Nova treatment where Wilkins kept the bass line going throughout while improvising chords and melodies on top. There were some great swinging tunes like Ellington’s “I Got It Bad”, “Taking a Chance On Love” and Gershwin’s “Our Love is Here To Stay” that had the audience tapping their feet and looking over from time to time in disbelief that Wilkins was producing all of this music on his own. A great round of applause came at the end of each song with the audience clearly showing their appreciation, while the musicians in the audience exchanged looks of amazement at the level of technique, musicality and artistry that Jack Wilkins has attained.
A pleasant surprise came at the end of the evening, when Wilkins invited guest guitarist James Chirillo to sit in with him for a couple of duets. They tore into “How Deep is the Ocean” exhibiting some awesome technique and some great interplay. In this setting, Wilkins got to show off his more contemporary side as an exciting soloist and one of the first guitarists in the 70’s and 80’s to earn the respect of modern players like Michael and Randy Brecker, Jack DeJohnette and Eddie Gomez, all of whom played on his albums.
At this point the audience had mostly finished eating their dinners, and were all listening intently, so by the time Wilkins and Chirillo closed the evening off with a version of “Samba De Orfeo” it felt more like a Jazz club than a restaurant – with the audience clapping for solos, laughing at musical jokes and taking in the great musical experience.
By Dan Adler
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Review "At LeMadeleine"