Reviews Press Stories
Reviews Press Stories
Liner Notes for the Windows re-issue
A look into another world.
Through the process of interpretation, variation and quotation musicians have long built intriguing bridges between past and present. Listening to one artist can sometimes mean ‘hearing’ another. For what might be called the Hip-hop generation of the ‘80s and ‘90s the use of ‘breaks’ was a crash course in the history of black music of yore, a means of mixing the sounds of then and now into a single entity, or as Nice ‘n’ Smooth contended, ‘this is how we take the old from the new.’
A Tribe Called Quest’s “Sucka Nigga” was a pivotal moment in the art of producing at the time of Bill, Monica and heated debates over smoking politicians and global warming. The lyrics stepped on to the ready-set-blow minefield of identity politics while the beats blew minds aplenty.
We were listening to Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad but hearing Jack Wilkins, whose “Red Clay” they had wisely chosen to sample. To all intents and purposes guitarist-bandleader Wilkins was a footnote in any putative arts almanac, a gifted jazz musician who had issued music on independent though highly respected labels such as Chiaroscuro, Claves and Arabesque. It was actually Mainstream, the imprint founded by uber-producer Bob Shad, that released the 1973 album “Windows,” which featured “Red Clay,” and provided a valuable platform for Wilkins in that year, when he appeared on another of the label’s notable titles, saxophonist Paul Jeffrey’s “Watershed.”
Wilkins impressed as a sideman but excelled on his own session, leading a trio that comprised bassist Mike Moore and drummer Bill Goodwin. Such a lean, pared down set-up was relatively out of fashion at a time when both the advent of jazz-fusion as well as the continuum of bebop still set great store by the piano as the central harmonic canvas for an arrangement. Where others heard limitations in the absence of a keyboard Wilkins heard possible new sensations. The space; the openness; the clarity, the intimacy; the resonance of a single tone: it is logical that these elements appealed to Wilkins when one considers he was working in a guitar-bass duo with Moore before he decided to hire Goodwin as a drummer. Three voices united after the alliance of two.
Even more interesting is the timbral palette of Wilkins’ trio. As somebody who started playing guitar at the age of 15, and was deeply influenced by the legendary Belgian Django Reinhardt as well as American greats Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass, Wilkins used both acoustic and electric instruments, a decision that was paralleled by Moore’s skilful deployment of double bass and Fender bass guitar. The sound of the group was both unplugged and plugged in.
However, plugging in did not mean losing finesse or delicacy in performance, primarily because Wilkins made a simple but astute technical choice. “I keep the amplifier volume fairly low, thereby getting a more acoustic, drier sound,” explained the Brooklyn-born guitarist to writer Nat Hentoff. “And the volume is then raised on the control room board. That way I avoid too much feedback and too many overtones.”
It was most likely the combination of the ethereal, stealthy, slender chords, the organic echo Wilkins favoured, and the viscose, sponge-like quality of Moore’s bass guitar that caught the ear of A Tribe Called Quest as they conceived of “Sucka Nigga” nearly two decades down the line. As the vernacular of the day would have it there was ‘phat’ and thin in the vinyl that became raw materials for the new production.
No less significant was the fact that the sample came from a cover of one of Freddie Hubbard’s most cherished compositions, which was built on a soulful, swirling theme as well as a solid backbeat. Wilkins made no secret of his desire to put his spin on the works of others. A musician who was employed by big name artists and bandleaders such as Buddy Rich, Stan Getz, Ray Charles and Sarah Vaughan, to mention but a few, he was committed to serving what he felt was the essential marker of a piece – its theme – as much as he was taking a solo.
“I really get off playing a good melody,” he argued. “I also think it’s important to really state the melody before improvising on it. The people listening ought to have a clear sense of the source of whatever follows, and you also owe it to the composer to first play what he had in mind. Once you’ve done that you can stretch out as far as you like.”
True to his word Wilkins tackled several demanding standards on “Windows” – the Chick Corea title track, John Coltrane’s “Naima” and Wayne Shorter’s “Pinocchio”, along with Hubbard’s “Red Clay” – and proved himself more than able to stamp his own personality on the compositions. The distinctive timbre of which Wilkins spoke –that ‘drier’ sound – is well to the fore but within that signature the guitarist uncovers a wealth of detail, and it would be a mistake to assume that he only favours understatement and restraint. Sometimes Wilkins’ phrasing is strident, as he strings together longer, busier sixteenth note lines that resolve with a tough, flinty tone that vaguely recalls the great Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo, a player who, interestingly enough, also excelled in airy, piano-less settings.
These harder edges in Wilkins’ trio are definitely part of its appeal but the marked sensitivity of original pieces such as “Song Of The Last Act” underlines just how well the musicians could listen as well as play. The ambiance is steeped in the eerie majesty of “Flamenco Sketches” as Wilkins, Moore and Goodwin duly embrace the Miles Davis credo of focusing as much on the space between the notes as the notes themselves. All of which creates a wry drama that chimes with the title of the piece, a notice of closure, the end of a story by way of a song.
Yet the beat goes on. In 2013, 20 years after A Tribe Called Quest looped it, and 40 years after Jack Wilkins played it, Chance The Rapper saw fit to reboot “Red Clay” on “Nana.” The groove still resists the relentless march of time. The past remains in step with the present.
Kevin Le Gendre