From the Red Clay Soil: An Interview With Jack Wilkins

Dean Van Ngyuen speaks with the tenured jazz guitarist about his reissued debut solo album and being sampled by A Tribe Called Quest.
By    October 16, 2018

Sometimes a hyperbolic statement is the right one. So here it is: Jack Wilkins’ debut album Windows is, for me, one of the definitive jazz guitar records. With no brass instruments to be seen, it’s the New Yorker’s stoned, leisurely playing that gorgeously winds through the six compositions. Wilkins’ languid version of John Coltrane’s “Naima” is sweet bliss; the more upbeat “Pinocchio,” a Wayne Shorter jam, showcases how nimbly he can negotiate the frets. And you already know Wilkins’ version of Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay,” which has been sampled by everyone from A Tribe Called Quest (on “Sucka N****”), to Chance The Rapper (“NaNa”), via Angie Stone (“The Ingredients of Love”). Hearing the tranquil chords and Mike Moore’s funky bassline in their original form, it’s easy to see why the song has been so tempting for beatmakers.

Windows was first put out by Mainstream Records in 1973 and quickly became an obscurity. “People didn’t know how to categorize it,” says the now 74-year-old Wilkins, whose collaboration list includes everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Buddy Rich. “That’s a big problem with music sometimes—everything has to be categorized by the critics. Otherwise, they don’t know what to make of it.” Thankfully, oldies label Wewantsounds have just dropped a much-needed reissue, pulling the album from the red clay soil, granting it a new surge of life. Speaking over the phone from NYC, Wilkins goes deep into the story of his classic debut. — Dean Van Nguyen

Is it cool for you that the album is coming out again and that it might find some new listeners and new life?

Jack Wilkins: Of course it’s wonderful. Who could have thought? It was a great experience at the time but I figured that was the end of it and it was over then. But it’s come back to life [laughs].

It was your first solo album. A lot of people tend to throw a lot of ideas into their first album—ideas that are built up, to get them out, in case they never get to make an album again. What was your motivation when you were making that album?

Jack Wilkins: I always just wanted to play as well as I could—I still do, mind you. It was just a thrill for me to make my own record, gee. I had been on a couple of other records before that, but my own recording? It was great. I thought long and hard about what I wanted to record because, y’know, it was my first record, I wanted to do a good job. I picked tunes that I had been playing quite a lot at the time. The Freddie Hubbard Tune “Red Clay,” and Wayne Shorter’s “Pinocchio,” Chick Corea’s “Windows,” I was playing those tunes all over the place. At a lot of gigs I was doing, concerts or what not, I was playing those tunes. So it wasn’t brand new, I’d been doing them a while.

When Bob Shad, who owned Mainstream Records, asked me if I wanted to do my own record, I said, “Yeah sure, let’s do it.” I had done a record before that called Watershed, with Paul Jeffrey… He wanted to do a Jim Hall, Sonny Rollins-kind of a record, and he wanted me to play guitar. It was all Paul’s original tunes. It was very difficult to play, it was very hard. We spent a lot of time rehearsing but it came out great. Then Bob Shatt asked me to do my own record.

As far as motivation, I’m always motivated to play. That’s the easy part [laughs]. Finding a concept—people talk about concepts, I don’t always have a concept. I don’t think it’s conscious, I’m never really conscious of what I’m going to be doing. I have sort of an idea in the back of the head of what kind of thing I want to present. I think. I’m not even sure about that actually [laughs].

You mentioned you did songs you were doing for a while. Do you remember what made you gravitate towards those songs initially and why you felt they’d be good songs to play on your record?

Jack Wilkins: I gravitated towards those songs because I’d been playing standards for so long. Not that these tunes aren’t standards, they’re still like standards, they’re just slightly different. “Pinocchio” is certainly a different form. But “Naima,” that’s kind of like a standard-type tune, right?  “Red Clay” certainly is a standard-type tune. “Windows” is a little longer. It’s not exactly an A-B-A-B tune, it’s not a standard form, 32-bars, blah blah blah. They were just fun songs to play and I was enjoying the complicated harmonies and textures to these tunes. I was discovering the sonic elements of the guitar and how beautiful the guitar can actually translate these harmonies to these sounds.

I guess part of the attention it got was because guitar players weren’t playing tunes like that at the time. Not that I ever heard, there might have been a few here and there but I didn’t know who they were. These tunes to me are not all that complicated, but to a lot of guitar players, they seem to be very complicated. Everybody’s always asking me, “How did you figure out how to play tunes like that.” To me, they’re standard tunes with a twist, perhaps you might say. They’re not all that complicated. But, like I said, a lot of guitar players weren’t playing those tunes, that’s what got the record some attention. From guitar players anyway. I don’t know about anybody else but it seemed it got attention.

You worked with Mike Moore on bass, Bill Goodwin [on drums]. You recorded it in Record Plant studios. How did that all go and was it a fun and positive experience for you to make?

Jack Wilkins: Yeah it was fun. I had been playing with Mike Moore quite a lot at the time. We’d been doing a lot of little concerts and gigs together. So we were playing a lot of duos and we were playing those tunes today. When we decided to do the record, I wasn’t sure who to get on drums who could fit in with the duo concept. But Mike said Bill Goodwin, I said yes. I’d never played with him but we got together, did a short quick rehearsal, it was fine, it felt great, so we just went in and did it.

The interesting thing about that recording is on the day of the recording is that the producer Bob Shad, who owned the Mainstream Records label, wasn’t there. There was some kind of emergency in his family. So it turned out that me and the engineer, Ernie Wilkins—he was a great saxophone player and was working as an engineer for Mainstream Records at the time—you might say he and I produced the thing, really. He was very cooperative in terms of getting a sound of me. We kept it really soft in the studio but when we put the headphones on, he could give us any sound we wanted.

So that was part of it—Bob Shad wasn’t there. He was great, I loved Bob. But without him, we were on our own to go ahead and see what happens and we did. Ernie and I got on really well and we were able to make pretty nice recordings. All you hear on that record is all we actually recorded—there was nothing else. There were no outtakes or anything. I think we did every track in one take, period… Because we were so ready to go, we knew exactly what we were going to play with the tempos and the feelings. Whatever little arrangements we had we knew exactly what was going on, we were well rehearsed. It gave it a certain, “Let’s get in, let’s get on with it.” Bing, we did it in one day.

One day? Wow, great.

Jack Wilkins: Yeah. I did some edits later and sound fixing, but there was no re-recording or anything like that.

The guitar is the most prominent instrument throughout the album —it’s very guitar led. It highlights your own distinct style. Was that always your intention?

Jack Wilkins: Of course, sure. I want my sound in there. You’re not always able to get it in the studio but I was able to get the sounds I wanted. It felt nice in the ‘phones, too. That’s the wonderful thing about a good sound in the studio—you get a great sound in the studio, you feel you can play just anything you want. You don’t have to think about it, the sound is right there, it’s right in your face, and you love it, and it feels good. Then you forget about the sound and go ahead and play the music. You’d be surprised how rarely that happens.

You mentioned Paul Jeffrey. You’ve worked with a ton of great people. Is there anyone in particular you feel like you’ve learned from the most?

Jack Wilkins: The most is pretty hard to say. I don’t think I can say that about anybody. I can certainly tell you that the people I played with, I always learned something from all of them. I don’t know who is the most I learned from. There was certainly a lot of great players I worked with. Not just famous people I’ve worked with but friends and cohorts—guitar players, flute players, and trumpet players you may not have heard of, but we learned together.

I learned a great deal from Albert Daley. He was another great player I just loved playing with. Barry Miles too was another one I’d played with and recorded with that I learned a lot of stuff from. All of them, but I’ve learned something from everybody. Everybody brings something to the party that feels good… or not. But these people I played with, they were all great players. You can’t help but find something great about playing with them. But no, there was no one person who I could say taught me the most. My first guitar teacher perhaps [laughs].

“Red Clay” obviously got notably sampled by A Tribe Called Quest and Chance The Rapper and a few other people. What did you think about that when you’d hear those songs and that it was finding this new life as something particularly fruitful for rap producers

Jack Wilkins: Yeah I was surprised but pleasantly. It was a bit of a surprise. “That’s me playing on A Tribe Called Quest recording” [laughs]. I got quite a kick out of it. I got a little money for it but whatever, that wasn’t the issue.

Where would they ever hear that? It was such an obscure record at the time. It just came out and went into oblivion almost immediately. It didn’t get that much attention. I did get a lot of work from it, though. I did a lot of festivals, I went to Europe a few times on that, and then got the gig with Buddy Rich—a small band, which wasn’t just sitting there chucking rhythm guitar. I was really featured in that band, big time. Buddy loved the way I played and he gave me solos every night. Id play a solo lust me alone on the bandstand, in front of hundreds, something 1,000 people  2,000 people, I’d play a solo. It was quite an experience that.

You talk about learning, you learn from yourself a lot. You learn more about how to play from yourself because you know what feels good and if it feels good it usually translates into good music.

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