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A Sad Farewell to Guitar Great Jack Wilkins (1944-2023)

One of the greats just left us on May 5, a month short of his 79th birthday. Guitar aficionados revered Jack Wilkins for his flawless technique, irrepressible sense of swing, remarkably fluid single note chops, command of Lenny Breau styled ringing harmonics and an overall harmonic mastery of the instrument that ranked him right up there on the Mount Olympus of jazz guitar alongside Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, Johnny Smith, Tal Farlow, Jim Hall, Django Reinhardt, Billy Bauer and others. Those who knew him well also appreciated his warmth, humanity and Brooklyn-born sense of humor. He will be greatly missed.

Part of the New York jazz scene for more than four decades, Wilkins was a fixture at clubs like Zinc, Mezzrow and Bar Next Door in the Village. For a time he also had a regular weekly at the Upper West Side restaurant Bella Luna, where he would play duos with a rotating cast of guitar greats on the scene. I also remember seeing Jack at a regular Monday night gig with Five Guitars Play Mingus (alongside the likes of Larry Coryell, Dave Stryker, Dave Fiuczynski, Adam Rogers, Russell Malone and others) up at the old Iridium, when it was located across the street from Lincoln Center. And in every scenario, he never failed to dazzle.

Born on June 4, 1944, Wilkins began playing the guitar at age 13 and was soon swept away by Chuck Berry and the whole rock 'n' roll tidal wave that washed over America in the late '50s. An older cousin turned Jack on to albums by the likes of Charlie Christian, Tal Farlow, Johnny Smith and Django Reinhardt. He later cited Smith's Designed for You, Pass' Sounds of Synanon, Farlow's The Swinging Jazz Guitar of Tal Farlow and Barney Kessel's Poll Winners as hugely influential albums for him during his developing years.

Wilkins recorded his first album as a leader, Windows, for the Mainstream label in 1973. That impressive debut, a trio outing with bassist Mike Moore and drummer Bill Goodwin, included beautiful renditions of John Coltrane's "Naima," Freddie Hubbard's "Red Clay," Wayne Shorter's "Pinocchio" and Chick Corea's "Windows."

He followed that with 1977's You Can't Live Without It (Chiaroscuro), featuring Michael and Randy Brecker, pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Jon Burr and drummer Al Foster. Jack recalled that session to me for my book Ode to a Tenor Titan: The Life and Times and Music of Michael Brecker : "I played with Randy and Michael on a Halloween night at their club Seventh Avenue South. Al Foster was on drums, Jon Burr on bass and Phil Markowitz was on piano. That's how You Can't Live Without It came to be. We went into studio after the gig was over. It must've been about one o'clock in the morning. It was all very last minute, like, "Let's record this right now!" Hank O'Neal was the owner of the record company (Chiaroscuro) and he said, "Come into the studio and record it." Fred Miller was the producer, and we just did it. We didn't really have anything worked out. It was a jam session record, which turned out pretty nice, really, I thought. I think some of Michael's best playing is on that record, actually. Michael, frankly, didn't really know the tunes that well. I think he knew "Invitation" OK, but he really didn't know "What's New?" and "What Is This Thing Called Love?" And "Freight Train" was just a blues so he picked that right up. But you'd never know that he didn't know those tunes because he had such great ears."

Later Wilkins recordings included 1989's Call Him Reckless, a guitar trio outing with bassist Steve LaSpina and drummer Mike Clark, 1991's Alien Army, with keyboardist Marc Puricelli, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Clark, 1992's Mexico (CTI) with alto sax great Phil Woods pianist Albert Dailey, bassist Harvie Swartz and drummer Akira Tana, as well as 1998's Trioart (Arabesque), 2001's Reunion (Chiaroscuro) with Mike and Randy Brecker, bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Jack DeJohnette, and 2009's Until It's Time (MaxJazz) with LaSpina, keyboardist Jon Cowherd and drummer Mark Ferber. A 1993 2CD set by Project G7, A Tribute to Wes Montgomery (Evidence), features Wilkins' peerless chordal creativity in the company of fellow guitarists Kevin Eubanks, Rodney Jones, Ted Dunbar and Gene Bertoncini while 2000's Just the Two Of Us (Chiaroscuro) captures him performing duets with Bertoncini aboard the S/S Norway cruise ship. He and Bertoncini also appear with guitarists Mundell Lowe Peter Bernstein, Mark Elf and Randy Johnston on 1999's We Remember Tal: A Tribute to Tal Farlow (Curve Music). Another highly recommended, though hard to find, item in Wilkins' discography is 1993's Out of the Blue(s): The Session (GM Recordings) by The Mingus Epitaph Rhythm Section featuring vibraphonist Joe Locke, bassists Formanek and Ed Schuller, drummers Ronnie Burrage and George Schuller.

A consummate accompanist, Wilkins has played and recorded with renowned singers Mel Tormé, Ray Charles, Morgana King, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, Jay Clayton, Chris Connor, Amy London and Nancy Harrow, always bringing his sophisticated harmonic sense and exquistie taste to the proceedings. Here is a piece I wrote about Jack Wilkins for Jazz Times back in 2009 entitled "Rigatoni and Ringing Harmonics":

Tuesday is live jazz night at Bella Luna, an exceptional Italian restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. For the past couple of years, guitarist Jack Wilkins has held court at this intimate hang, swinging nonchalantly in one corner of the room as unsuspecting patrons chow down on their rigatoni. On most Tuesday nights a coterie of hardcore Wilkins fans—most amateur and professional six-stringers themselves—gathers at the bar just a few feet away from the Brooklyn native to take in every nuance of his remarkable playing. They sip their wine and whiskey with eyes glued to Wilkins’ busy right hand; they soak in his lush chordal voicings, shimmering arpeggios and ringing harmonics.

Though Wilkins’ fretboard prowess is on par with such celebrated contemporaries as Pat Martino and Larry Coryell, the 65-year-old guitarist has been flying under the radar since the release of his debut record, 1973’s Windows on the Mainstream label. A one-time member of Buddy Rich’s working septet of the early ’70s and accompanist to a bevy of great jazz singers over the years, from Sarah Vaughan, Chris Connor and Jay Clayton to Morgana King, Nancy Harrow and Amy London, Wilkins remains highly regarded in guitar circles. And when it comes to assessing his standing in the guitar firmament, the guitar aficionados at Bella Luna are quick to give their man kudos. “Jack is definitely one of the best guitarists out there today, without a doubt,” says one ardent fan at the bar. “His problem is he’s just not so good at promoting himself. But the players know the deal.”

The particular Tuesday night I attended the weekly guitar ritual at Bella Luna, Wilkins was joined by special guest Howard Alden, whose impeccable playing on a rich-sounding seven-string guitar blended beautifully with Wilkins’ rhythmically charged comping and fluid single-note lines. The two created magic on a set of Great American Songbook favorites, interweaving tight counterpoint lines on “Give Me the Simple Life,” nimbly shifting roles back and forth on “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” and blowing through the changes on uptempo renditions of “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Everything I’ve Got.” At one point, a woman approached Wilkins with a request on the night of her engagement dinner-“When I Fall in Love.” Wilkins turned in a stirring solo rendition that was brimming with beautiful chordal melodies and deft re-harmonization, in the tradition of guitar role models like Joe Pass, Tal Farlow and Johnny Smith.

On his most recent release, the superb Until It’s Time (MaxJazz), Wilkins covers Smith’s “Walk Don’t Run” (a tune popularized in the early ’60s by the Ventures). The piece begins with a fugue-like quote of the familiar melody before it opens up and starts swinging. “Johnny Smith is the musician that made me wanna play music in the first place,” says Wilkins. “The first time I heard his records I went crazy. I said, ‘This is ridiculous. I wanna do that!'”

Wilkins is joined on his 14th recording as a leader by bassist and longtime collaborator Steve LaSpina, along with pianist Jon Cowherd and drummer Mark Ferber. “I played with Steve a million times,” says the guitarist. “Jon I’ve played with a whole lot. Mark I haven’t played with as much as the others but we had an immediate hookup. And so I knew it was going to be a righteous group.”

Following a day of rehearsal, they knocked out all 12 tracks in a single day in the studio. The title track is a cover of the romantic Buffy Sainte-Marie tune from the ’60s, “Until It’s Time for You to Go.” Says Wilkins, “I was doing some solo guitar gigs, subbing for Gene Bertoncini at this place called La Madeleine, and one night somebody requested that tune. And as I played it I realized how gorgeous the changes were, with the beautiful harmonies and the bassline that moves around. I’ve always loved the song and I loved the way she sang it, just a very emotional reading of the tune.”

A gifted player with a great ear and an impeccable sense of time, Wilkins got his big break with bandleader and drummer Buddy Rich. “I only played with Buddy’s big band once and, frankly, I didn’t care for it,” he says. “It was no fun for me. As a guitar player, you get lost in the big band. So for three years I always played in a small-group setting with Buddy. We went out on the road as a septet—sometimes we’d even play quartet. I learned a million tunes, and every night I came home from that gig I realized what I had to work on.”

Rich’s working septet during this period (1971-74) included such heavy hitters as alto saxophonist Sonny Fortune, tenor saxophonist Sal Nistico, pianist Kenny Barron and electric bassist Anthony Jackson. They made one live recording as a unit, 1971’s Very Live at Buddy’s Place (Groove Merchant). “Buddy loved these guys,” says Wilkins. “And when he sat behind those drums he was just as happy as he could be. I sat two feet away from him the whole time I was in the band … and I still can’t believe what I saw. It was uncanny.”

During their sets, Rich would invariably dismiss the rest of the band to feature Wilkins in a solo setting. “It started one night when Buddy looked at me and said, ‘Play something!’ and then left the stage. Maybe he was tired and hot and wanted to get a drink. Whatever the case, I was left up there all alone and had to come up with something quick to draw the crowd into my playing the best I could. It was a great learning experience for me to actually sit there and play something that people enjoyed. It taught me a lot about creating colors and moods and dynamics within a tune. I couldn’t just get up there and wail a lot of notes, I had to really communicate and make it happen in an organic way. And I could always tell if I was good. If Buddy liked it, I knew it was OK.”

During his tenure with Rich, Wilkins wrote one tune for him called “Fum,” which they recorded together on 1974’s Transition. As Wilkins recalls, “Buddy loved that piece. We played it every night. When I first brought it to him he said, ‘What the hell kind of name is that? Like “Fee Fi Fo Fum”?’ And I told him, ‘No, it stands for “Fuck U, Man.”‘ He just couldn’t stop laughing for a week after that.”

As for the fabled Rich temper, Wilkins says he never saw it. “Buddy was so nice to me you can’t believe it. Buddy and I became really good friends. We’re both from Brooklyn, we both loved baseball, we both played music and I didn’t give him any shit about anything. Why would I? I mean, we all knew who the boss was. He was the boss, and we were cool with that.”

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