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 You, 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.”
Until It’s Time (MaxJazz, 2009)
Reunion (Chiaroscuro, 2001)
Merge (Chiaroscuro, 1977)