In Morava (Na Moravě)
Street Date: November 17, 2023
Label: New Port Line Records
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.
In the Stars
Street Date: November 18, 2022
Label: Deer Head Records
Veteran pianist and composer Skip Wilkins presents his latest release In the Stars with his long-standing jazz quartet the Skip & Dan Wilkins Quartet. The album draws inspiration from Skip’s period of Covid-19 isolation and rejoices in the ability to gather together once more in creation of beautiful moments of music-making. In the Stars presents audiences with recordings of stellar arrangements and performances of Great American Songbook compositions that have, until now, largely been lost to the sands of time. The album is dedicated to the great NEA Jazz Master Phil Woods whom Skip had the opportunity to play with frequently and for many years as a member of the Festival Orchestra. The album features Skip alongside his son, celebrated tenor saxophonist Dan Wilkins and Wilkins’ stalwart rhythm section made up of bassist Tony Marino and drummer Bill Goodwin.
For 14 months in 2020 – 2021, Skip Wilkins found himself in the midst of Covid-19-imposed lockdown at his home in the Delaware Water Gap. Wilkins’ unlikely living situation (atop the historic Deer Head Inn, the oldest running jazz club in the country – which Wilkins refers to as his ‘living room’) served as a constant reminder of the state of the live-music landscape. With the dormant venue beneath his feet, Wilkins was left with nothing-but free time to ruminate on his illustrious musical past, including fourteen previous CD releases as a leader or co-leader, decades of U.S. performances, and years of steady touring throughout Europe, along with his most recent venture – a joyous quartet recording alongside his son and his long-time rhythm section which was set to be released later that year in 2020. Wilkins made the decision to delay the release of In the Stars until a time when we can gather again to celebrate the joys of live music. That time is here, and in the words of Wilkins, “It’s great to be back.”
The notion of breathing new life to underappreciated yet classic songs is nothing new for Wilkins, as the pianist indicates: “…truthfully, it is one that has consumed me since I was a little boy, before I could ever have comprehended the future scope and trajectory of my life and career. It has been In the Stars for a very long time. During the last decade, I have found special delight in unearthing new-old material that isn’t being played and recorded constantly.” During the lockdown, Wilkins added hundreds of new songs to his collection. “It is my life-long pursuit. There’s so much great music out there, and our quartet loves exploring the many gems of this repertoire.”
In the Stars captures four true innovators at their musical peak lending their singular voices to seldom-performed compositions by classic composers such as Hoagie Carmichael, Johnny Mercer, Kurt Weill, Antônio Carlos Jobim and George Gershwin. Here the bandmates display a level of trust and interplay that only comes from years of collaboration. Particularly evident in tracks such as “I Walk With Music”, “Brigas Nunca Mais”, “I’m Making Believe” and “Why Do I Love You”, Dan Wilkins’ stellar horn lines soar atop Skip Wilkins’ supple pianistic refrains and are well supported by the deeply swinging grooves provided by the rhythm section. Skip Wilkins’ incredible improvisational prowess is displayed throughout, and is in full force on tracks such as “Lost In The Stars”, “I’ll Never Smile Again”, “Sweet Georgie Fame”, and “I’m Making Believe”.
Skip Wilkins notes “It is an uncommon thrill to work on music with my son Dan, whose musical maturity was frighteningly obvious long ago. Not many people get to do creative professional work with their children and I am grateful for it every day. And it’s great to record again and again with Tony Marino.” In The Stars is Skip Wilkins’ sixth outing with Tony Marino, and the latest collaboration with the venerable Bill Goodwin, who Skip regards as “the mentor [he] needed at this time in [his] life. In The Stars follows the 2019 release of the Skip & Dan Wilkins Quartet’s Someday, which Making A Scene’s Jim Hynes called “authentic, tried and true jazz.”
Street Date: October 11, 2019
Label: Deer Head Records
Through performances of oft-overlooked compositions from the Great American Songbook, the Skip & Dan Wilkins Quartet offers its love letter to the historic Deer Head Inn of Pennsylvania, the oldest continuously running jazz club in the country. Someday was recorded in December 2017 by Paul Wickliffe. The stunning interplay of the ensemble and musical selections curated by Skip and Dan celebrate the classic sound of the saxophone quartets of years past. Warm, dulcet melodies from Dan’s tenor adorn the harmonic invention emanating from Skip’s keys. Along with Skip and Dan is the stellar rhythm section of bassist Tony Marino and drummer Bill Goodwin.
The calm serenity offered by the quartet throughout the duration of Someday brings the listener into the spirit of the historic Deer Head Inn. Skip Wilkins is no stranger to this prized Poconos institution, in fact, since 2012 the pianist has lived in the upstairs apartment in the Deer Head Inn’s original carriage house, and prior to that, the Inn served as a getaway for Wilkins and his family. Both of his children, including Dan, who is featured on this release, enjoyed debut performances at the club. The accomplished personnel chosen by the resident pianist for Someday is perfectly suited for this exploration of the Great American Songbook, and for this dedication to the Deer Head Inn. Drummer Bill Goodwin is a fellow resident at Deer Head Inn, and Skip seized this moment to record with his neighbor, along with his son Dan on tenor saxophone as well as long-time collaborator, bassist Tony Marino.
Someday begins with an effortless, beautiful rendition of Parker & Charles’ “We’ll Meet Again”, a bright-tempoed jubilant swing tune. Father and son team Skip and Dan Wilkins perfectly complement each other’s sound. Skip says “It is a special delight to work on music with my son Dan. You could say that we both have old souls. We both love the canon – the Great American Songbook. We often exchange favorite old songs as well as favorite versions. I’ve written music for Dan that we’ve recorded on previous CD releases, keeping an ear out for what he does so well in writing those pieces. But this recording proceeded differently, because Dan and I selected the material together. In my career I have been fortunate to play and record with many great saxophonists both in the U.S. and in Europe, even including two NEA Jazz Masters. But for some music, you just have to grow your own saxophonist.”
Demonstrating the scope of the ensemble, the quartet offers a laid-back Latin groove on Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields’ “Remind Me” which hearkens back to Page One era Joe Henderson. Skip demonstrates his facility on the keys with a masterful improvisation on Kern’s classic changes. Another sultry selection from this release is “If Somebody Comes Ever Again” by Alec Wilder and Johnny Mercer. This tender ballad in a waltz feel features some of the more dynamic interplay on this album – Skip’s piano comping for bassist Tony Marino’s solo is a study in counterpoint, and drummer Bill Goodwin’s support and anticipation throughout Skip’s solo is a master class in rhythmic ingenuity.
Dan shines on the Freeman/Skylar composition “You’ll Always Be the One I Love” with a marvelous melodic exploration that reminds one of the tone and time-feel of Dexter Gordon, fitting for the melancholy musings of the piece. The album ends with the group’s interpretation of Cole Porter’s “Dream Dancing”. The track features burning solos from the father and son duo, ending Someday on a high. With the final notes of this driving swing tune, one can’t help but be transported back to the feeling of a late Saturday night in the Poconos at the Deer Head Inn, the room abuzz with the afterglow of an amazing set of live music, the shouting of the bartender’s ‘last call’ and the applause of a delighted audience.
Album: Czech Wishes
Street Date: March 31, 2019
Label: New Port Line Records
Inspired by Wilkins’ ten years of traveling, performing and teaching throughout the Czech Republic, Czech Wishes details the love story between an artist and the many wonderful people and experiences he has encountered throughout his years traveling through the enchanting villages and rolling countryside of the Czech Republic. The album features Skip with his son Daniel Wilkins, a saxophonist with whom he frequently records, and three stellar Czech musicians in the vanguard of the jazz scene in Prague, including trumpeter Miroslav Hloucal, bassist Tomáš Baroš and drummer Marek Urbánek. All pieces were composed by Skip, and recorded in Studio Svárov near Prague.
Skip and Daniel Wilkins have been collaborating musically since 2012 with the release of Father and Son. During this time, Manhattan School of Music graduate Daniel has turned into a formidable bandleader and sideman in his own right, touring extensively throughout Europe and the United States. The father and son duo have headlined festivals throughout Europe, performing original material penned by each of them. “Don’t Forget Me,” track six on Czech Wishes, gives the audience the opportunity to hear the two perform as a duo. Regarding this recording, Skip remarks “This one stays in the family. It must. My father has Alzheimer’s. The composition is thus inscribed: For my father, who will forget, and for my mother, who will remember, a lament of Alzheimer’s disease.”
A full-time professor at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, the theme of education runs throughout Skip’s album. The first track, “Teacher,” is inspired by Skip’s Czech language teacher Dáša, Skip’s year-round connection to the region that he has grown to love. The piece is dedicated to Dáša and “to all teachers who inspire their students to imagine much more.” The track offers a beautifully dynamic start to the album, beginning the album with a tender melody played by Daniel and accompanied by his father. As the remaining trio of Czech instrumentalists enters the piece, it builds into a driving, hard-bop influenced melody section and then moves onto some dazzling solos by Miroslav and Skip.
On the album’s fourth track, “The Box-Checkers,” Skip playfully pokes fun at bureaucracy in contemporary American life, one which is “filled with incessant box-checking, arcane rules, labyrinthine procedures, and a kind of often unexamined group-think which drives me mad.” The final track on the album, “Wise One” is dedicated to a fellow musician and educator whose wisdom the artist finds unparalleled. This bright tempo swing tune, which closes off the album, exemplifies the rhythm section’s stellar comping, and the stunning intonation and rhythmic precision of the horn section.
Through compositions that detail Skip’s love for the Czech region, we get a very human story about an artist with an insatiable wanderlust, and deeply personal journeys embarked on with family and friends.
For In Morava
For In The Stars
DEE DEE MCNEIL
"The Wilkins Quartet breathes new life into classic songs.. " Read the review here.
"It’s a swinging set with nicely contrasted tempos and the delivery is faultless." Read the review here.
TAKE EFFECT REVIEWS
"Skip injects new life into these old songs, and with his quartet on hand they celebrate all that is great about live music while illuminating some overlooked pieces of songwriting history." Read the review here.
"The Poconos were never more alive than on this night! The musicianship on display was, in a word, sterling. I can’t wait to go back."
Read the full review here.
"While it’s delightfully old school, there’s no dust on it as these four pals show just how adept they are at hitting all the right notes at all the right times. One of the tastiest workouts you are going to find, you don’t even have to be sipping something to enjoy it to the max." Read the full review here.
"These tunes are ideal for a romantic or simply relaxing dinner by the fire. Close your eyes and you can practically hear the wood crackle and the faint tinkling sounds of glasses toasting as you listen. This is authentic, tried and true jazz – the kind you can expect to hear on a visit to the historic Deer Head Inn. Put it on your bucket list." Read the full review here.
DEE DEE MCNEIL
"Dan Wilkins has a smooth, intoxicating sound on tenor saxophone. Skip Wilkins is an amazingly competent and creative pianist. Together, with Tony Marino on bass and Bill Goodwin at the drum set, this is a thoroughly entertaining quartet." Read the full review here.
For Czech Wishes
JAZZ HISTORY ONLINE
"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... Highly recommended." Read the full review here.
"Pianist and composer Skip Wilkins mixes rich Eastern European themes with modern swing as he features tenor saxist Daniel Wilkins in a bopping band with Miroslav Hioucal/tp-fh, Tomas Baros/b and Marek Urbanek/dr." Read the full review here.
DEE DEE MCNEIL
"This is an album full of bright, harmonic horn lines, fresh compositions and inspiring arrangements. All the musicians are skillful and their repertoire covers hard bop, blues, Ballads, and a blend of American and Czech jazz that captivates and entertains." Read the full review here.