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Jack Wilkins: The Blue & Green Project

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These two intriguing concept albums explore Americana themes. One is mostly celebration; one is mostly protest.

Jack Wilkins’ project is a unique attempt to combine jazz with Appalachian mountain music. The two genres prove to be surprisingly complementary. The inspiration for the opening track, “Song of the Anvil,” is a field recording of two master blacksmiths in Spruce Pine, N.C., communicating in the “language of the anvil,” hammering together in tempo. The ringing syncopations become an authentic, commanding hard-bop anthem, with strong, clear solo stories from tenor saxophonist Wilkins, trombonist Keith Oshiro and guitarist Corey Christiansen.

Wilkins is the director of the jazz studies program at the University of South Florida in Tampa. His compositions and arrangements for up to 18 musicians reflect an academic’s meticulousness and thoroughness. The intricate 14-minute suite “Mountain Watercolors,” inspired by the paintings of North Carolina artist Elizabeth Ellison, contains three movements, each connected to an element of Ellison’s art, each fully explained in Wilkins’ liner notes.

But Wilkins’ conscientious craftsmanship is neither tame nor dry. “Mountain Watercolors” includes a wild, whining guitar solo by LaRue Nickelson and a careening fiddle workout by Sara Caswell. Bluegrass grooves and wailing hoedowns keep popping up in Wilkins’ through-composed designs. The most memorable piece is the short, harrowing “Death Rattle,” based on “death ballads” found in mountain cultures. Christiansen, Nickelson, Wilkins and trombonist Tom Brantley all testify, darkly. Life in Appalachia was not always a party.

Cloning Americana is Billy Drewes (reeds), Gary Versace (acoustic piano), Scott Lee (bass) and Jeff Hirshfield (drums). Their 13 original compositions are motivated by concern for the current state of American society. On the back cover of the CD, they speak of a “decline in the basic social values of respect, compassion, and tolerance … causing unnecessary inequality and suffering.”

If you did not read the CD cover, you would be unaware of the political subject matter. You would encounter a nimble, deft quartet playing a varied program of intelligent, free-flowing new-millennium jazz. You would respond to the slow, poignant melodies of Lee’s “The Lament” and Drewes’ “Old Dirt.” Drewes is a player capable of rare lyrical delicacy. Versace makes “Old Dirt” into an aching lullaby. He is best known as an organist but is quietly becoming one of the most consistently creative and versatile keyboard players in jazz.

As with any successful concept album, the music here can stand on its own. But this work achieves its true purpose only when the listener contemplates its message and perceives how the underlying social themes cohere with the music and create resonance. On Drewes’ “Wetlands,” the composer, on bass clarinet, whispers ominously about the loss of something precious and irreplaceable.

The only piece that fails is the title track. In a toneless, quavering voice, Drewes sings a well-intentioned poem about how “we are all one.” Yes we are, but it should have been left off the album.

Originally Published