Renowned Pianist & Composer Skip Wilkins — The Deer Head Inn’s Very Own — Returns With Deeply Satisfying New Trio Album, In Morava (Na Moravě), Due Fall 2023 Via New Port Line Records
Skip Wilkins may only partly spend his time in the Delaware Water Gap, PA as he also lives in Central Europe. But he’s not just a regular presence at the Water Gap’s storied Deer Head Inn, the site of live recordings from Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, and Paul Motian, to Phil Woods, to Jim Snidero — Wilkins actually lives at the Deer Head.
The Deer Head is just the spectacular pianist and composer’s epicenter, though; no matter where Wilkins has treaded, he’s performed with some of the unquestionable greats of jazz, from Stanley Turrentine to Clark Terry to Dave Liebman and beyond.
Jazz Station noted “the harmonic invention emanating from Skip’s keys.” Musical Memoirs has hailed him as “an amazingly competent and creative pianist,” and his 2019 album Someday as “an hour of exceptional jazz music.” And All About Jazz got down to brass tacks: “Jazz has no boundaries, and apparently neither does pianist Skip Wilkins.”
Now, Wilkins has a new trio album, In Morava (Na Moravě), due out in the fall of 2023. Featuring longtime friends and colleagues in bassist Josef Fečo and drummer Tomáš Hobzek, In Morava (Na Moravě) is a moving tribute to Wilkins’s extensive travels on both sides of the pond, and the close associates the pianist has made along the way.
These include the Czech tenor saxophonist Rostislav Fraš, who guested on three cuts (two takes of “Kája,” as well as “Really” (“Fakt”) before his untimely 2019 passing after a long battle with a brain tumor. He was only 44. “Rost’a died before he ever heard this recording,” Wilkins says of the late great of jazz. “The album is dedicated to him.”
Opener “My Beautiful Stranger” has a particular emotional pull; it begins on a moody, diminished chord. Although they don’t appear in the track, the tune’s arc hangs on lyrics by vocalist/composer Maureen McElheron. “She wrote a song on the theme of meeting someone in a New York elevator,” Wilkins says — which is certainly apropos to the title.
“Nearly Good Wine” is a recognizably bebop tune — with a twist or two. “A lot of times, the genesis of each song title starts from a joke,” Wilkins says. To hear him tell it, his bassist at the time — a non-native English speaker — called the wine on offer “nearly good.” And on a musical level, “It doesn’t rest where you think it will,” regarding its key.
Wilkins characterizes “My Czech Family” (“Moje česká rodina”)) as “a sweeping waltz.” Granted, “I’ve written a lot of waltzes — but this one’s different. I knew when I finally decided to record it that Josef would play it fantastically — I could hear him play it.”
After said 3/4 tune, In Morava (Na Moravě) switches things up with “Where Are You
Going, Frank?” (“Franto, kam jdeš?”), which Wilkins describes as “a minor key tune that’s funky.” Like “Nearly Good Wine,” the tune has an extended form: “The A sections are really harmonically easy to digest; the bridge is tuneful, but harmonically a little challenging.”
The program continues with “Kája” — the second of two takes. As in take one, late tenorman Fraš displays his talents. “It’s for a Czech musician he knew well, and the bassist knew well, and everyone in the Czech jazz scene knew well,” Wilkins says, referring to pianist Karel Růžička – “Kája” — whose son Karel, Jr. is a well-regarded
New York tenorman.
“I wrote this melody that I harmonized in two completely different ways, and they occur in succession,” Wilkins explains. “That gives the players different characters to play.” Why include both takes, despite the same arrangement? “Two different performances allowed me to state the theme, and the tenor to restate it — but with different harmony, and with different feeling.”
Which brings us to the title track, “In Morava” (“Na Moravě”). “I used this kind of device before, with another piece,” Wilkins says, “where I put a chorale in the front and the back of a tune that’s in the same emotional space as the tune, but allowed for a prelude and a postlude… The tune in the middle is not harmonically complex, but the B section is; that’s the release point.”
“Bohunka’s Cakes” (“Bohunčiny koláče”) is another waltz — albeit with a different flavor. “An homage to a friend — a thank you for Bohunka, who used to make these cakes for us.” While sojourning in Prague on tour, the drummer’s girlfriend would bake cakes for the group; when they’d return to the crash pad, they’d find her baking even more cakes.
“It struck me as the right reason to write a song for her,” Wilkins reflects. “It’s not a lyrical, emotional, sad tune at all. It’s a waltz. But it dances because she dances.”
As Wilkins puts it, “Really” (“Fakt”) is “very experimental in nature.” “I want it not to sound like the same tune night after night,” he says. “The tempo can be different; the feel can be completely different; it can stop in the middle and change feels.”
And after take one of said “Kája,” In Morava (Na Moravě) concludes with “Threads,” which Wilkins calls “a rubato adventure through harmony and melody, that I decided to sing.” Yes, Wilkins is a vocalist as well as a pianist and composer, and he lets his pipes fly for the finale.
But throughout In Morava, Wilkins proves himself to be a beautiful singer — even if just mostly through his heart, mind and hands.
- My Beautiful Stranger
- Nearly Good Wine
- My Czech Family (Moje ceska rodina)
- Where Are You Going, Frank (Franto, kam jdes)
- Kaja (take two)
- In Morava (Na Morave)
- Bohunka’s Cakes (Bohunciny kolace)
- Really (Fakt)
- Kaja (take one)