By: Thomas Cunniffe, Jazzhistoryonline.com
SKIP WILKINS QUARTET FEATURING DANIEL WILKINS: “CZECH WISHES” (Newport Line 18-20)
Pianist Skip Wilkins splits his time between Pennsylvania and Prague, performing and teaching jazz in both locations. His new album, “Czech Wishes” features a quintet drawn of players from the US and the Czech Republic. Wilkins’ son Daniel plays tenor sax on the front line alongside trumpeter Miroslav Hloucal, while Skip leads the rhythm section with bassist Tomáš “Kaštan” Baroš and drummer Marek Urbánek. Skip composed all nine of the pieces, and each is dedicated to a person or event in his recent life. The opening work, “Teacher”, is dedicated to his Czech language teacher, and its slow introduction and coda frame a melody which is presented in medium tempo in both legato and agitated forms. “Munchkins of Karlovy Vary” paints a portrait of three very active children whom Skip has seen grown up. These works follow a stylistic progression from 1960s Blue Note originals to contemporary jazz, and like those works, Wilkins and his fellow musicians have the freedom to expand the harmonic boundaries through their improvisations. Basically, the available chord tones to the improvisers are not necessarily present within the tunes as we hear them, giving the musicians an opportunity to expand our understanding of the piece’s infrastructure. On the waltz “On the Train”, each musician finds a way to juxtapose rhythmic units against the basic pulse, which creates a unique heaving quality to the track. “The Box-Checkers” is based on the standard operational procedures of American academia, and the visceral anxiety of this piece comes as a shock after the relative calm of the Czech-inspired works. Skip’s mercurial piano takes the tension up to a higher level, and Daniel’s throaty tenor is particularly effective as he explores and develops meaty ideas. Hloucal and Urbánek also turn in impressive solos on this track. The title track is a relaxed work, with the rhythm evoking a springtime walk in Prague, inspiring joyous solos from Wilkins père and fils, as well as Baroš—all of whom must know this area well. I do not claim to have personal knowledge of Prague, but I did meet the subject of the next track, Bud Wilkins, who recently died from Alzheimer’s. The duet, “Don’t Forget Me” is a heartfelt tribute from father and son, based on an unwritten original melody that Skip recorded, memorized and developed over a two-year period. “In Search of Greener Grass” reflects a traveler’s wanderlust through a series of shifting key centers, which—significantly—return back to the original home key. “Reptiles” allows the group to stretch out on a blues, with Skip’s opening piano solo expanding the form far beyond its basic harmonies, Hloucal exploring with intriguing note choices, and Daniel’s soulful ideas enhancing Urbánek’s grooving beat. The final track, the up-tempo “Wise One” offers a catchy melody and rhythmically inventive solos from flugelhorn, piano and drums. Highly recommended.