Monday, February 04, 2008

Don Wilkerson, tenor sax - Blue Note album liner notes


BLUE NOTE has consistently led the field in presenting new jazz talent to lovers of the idiom. Its continual search for fresh jazz faces and creative innovations has reaped swinging harvests. Blue Note 4107 introduces a new dynamic tenor sax virtuoso in Don Wilkerson. Though a new personality, he is truly concept-wise in the ways of the ever-changing jazz scene.

Born in 1932 in the sleepy town of Moreauville, Louisiana, Don Wilkerson received early musical education at home. His educational itinerary, musical and formal, included brief high school stays at Shreveport, Louisiana and Houston, Texas. It was at Houston's Jack Yates High that Don began playing alto sax in a beginners band. He made his professional debut for a $3.00 gross in Dayton, Texas. In 1948, however, he earned a chair with Amos Milburn, then an up-and-coming pianist and band leader. Later, on the coast, he alternated between the bands of Milburn and Charles Brown (of Three Blazers fame) and recorded with both. It was during this 1948-'49 period in Los Angeles that Don received his first jazz exposure by jamming with fast company such as Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray and Sonny Clark. Don left the West to return home to Houston.

Ray Charles had organized a band in the summer of 1954. By October of that year Don joined the band that was destined for greatness. Ray Charles's classics such as "I Got A Woman," "Come Back Baby," "This Little Girl Of Mine" and "Hallelujah," etc. feature Wilkerson tenor solos that are recognizable by all Charlesian devotees. Don Wilkerson's horn influences lie in the realms of both tenor and alto. He lists such tenormen as Jacquet, Cobb, Ammons, Gonsalves and Rollins; Parker and Hodges for alto inspiration. Special mention, however, is reserved for Sonny Stilt and Ike Quebec. Stitt is recognized by all as a great encourager. Don can attest to this. And it was Ike Quebec who brought this talent to the attention of Blue Note.

The listener will undoubtedly acquiesce to the fact that Preach Brother, Blue Note 4107, features six virile portraits of "soul." Although all of the featured tunes are Wilkerson originals, the general feeling of Ray Charles acts as an influential catalyst. Jazz-wise, the listener will react favorably to the expressive talents of Don on tenor; Grant Green on guitar, Sonny Clark on piano, Butch Warren on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. This session is distinctly a "shouter" affair with down-home overtones. This should not prevent urbane cries of "OOWHEE!" from more sophisticated jazz aficionados, whether in a mass wild chant or individually.

"Jeanie-Weenie" - This brisk shuffler opens the session with Don's tenor vividly jumping for joy in the first chorus. This opus features good jazz guitar with bluesy connotations flourishingly displayed by Grant Green. Fluid Wilkerson tenor sounds permeate throughout.

"Homesick Blues" - reminds this writer vividly of "Big Leg Woman," an anatomical survey in the form of an old blues classic. Don manages adequately to affect an alto sound in "Homesick." This lush blues also features expressively, in solo, excellent piano and guitar by Sonny Clark and Grant Green, respectively. The insistence of Billy Higgins's drums pulsates throughout.

"Dem Tambourines" - A shouter enmeshed in what could be termed as Afro-Creole. Billy Higgins's drums parallel the tambourines, making this basically a rhythmical jazz "troika." The Wilkerson tenor concocts an uninhibited flow of ideas throughout...Amensville!

"Camp Meetin"' - A veritable "wailer" that compounds solos between Don and Grant Green. Grant employs no boppish cliches as he displays Charlie Christian-like ideas. With all jazz systems in "go," the listener will agree that these are no lazy lads.

"The Eldorado Shuffle" - Don opens this stanza creatively with a tastily contrived tenor solo. Green's guitar seconds this funky motion. Sonny Clark comes in for a short, uncomplicated stay but makes his presence felt.

"Pigeon Peas" - This palatable jazz delicacy shows Don's preoccupation with the Arnett Cobb influence. This choice stomp waxes more in the modern idiom, especially in Sonny Clark's piano. Butch Warren's bass along with Billy Higgins's drums gives this opus great depth. Don's tenor leads this stanza home to its delightful conclusion.
We feel the listener in his pursuit in the field of "digsmanship" will embrace the creative influence of Don Wilkerson.


This is Don Wilkerson's second LP for Blue Note. His first, Preach Brother! (4107) was in a more overt rhythm-and-blues groove than the present collection, and contained something of a hit in a piece with the self-explanatory title, "Camp Meetin' ."

On the jacket notes to that album, it was pointed out that Wilkerson played most of the tenor solos in the Ray Charles band of 1954, the band that recorded the first great Charles hits such as "Hallelujah, I Love Her So" and "I Got A Woman." Wilkerson was to that band what another Texas tenorman, David "Fathead" Newman is to the present one. I think it is significant that Wilkerson had so much experience, and because of it, it is more than coincidental that Blue Note should be the company to record him.

Charles's overwhelming success as a singer has fairly effectively obscured the fact that for years he led one of the best small jazz bands in the business, a sort of successor to Louis Jordan's Tympani Five. How deeply this stylistic tradition has affected contemporary jazz is indicated when one remembers that Sonny Rollins has called Jordan his first influence, and that Art Blakey has called the Charles group his favorite band. The Charles instrumental are so similar in intent to what Blakey and Horace Silver have been doing that it seems natural that Wilkerson's music, in much the same vein, would appeal to the Blue Note people.

To continue the parallel for a moment, the main difference between the music of Jordan-Charles and that of Blakey-Silver is that the former two have spent much of their time playing music for dancing. Therefore, their music is often of a functional character, while the Messengers and Silver play what could more accurately be called art music, for listening only. It is this functional quality that is happily present in Wilkerson's work. He has listed as tenor influences such men as Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb, Gene Ammons, Paul Gonsalves, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt and Ike Quebec. Significantly, I think, all except Rollins have spent a good part of their professional lives playing for dancing; and certainly, Rollins has kept the quality of dance in his work more than all but a very few major jazzmen. I hear the sound of Cobb in Wilkerson more than that of anyone else, but it may be only the famous "cry" that seems indigenous to the work of Texas tenormen. And it might not be irrelevant to mention that the first great Basie band, one of the greatest of dance bands, was largely staffed with men from that Southwest tradition.

The most recent manifestation of the jazz-dance combo has been the countless small groups which feature tenor and/or guitar with organ and drums. One of the most recent musicians of importance to emerge from the workshop of those groups has been the guitarist Grant Green, and it is entirely fitting that he should have a major role to play on this set. He has several successful Blue Note LPs to his credit, and my own more extensive comments on his playing can be found on the back of Sunday Mornin' (4099). The pianist Johnny Acea is also admirably suited to this company. Originally a trumpeter, he worked in the band of the great Texas pianist Sammy Price. Much of his recent work has been with Illinois Jacquet, and he has been Dinah Washington's accompanist. It is significant that on the LP that signalled Ray Charles's entrance into popular music, The Genius Of Ray Charles, the most overt blues performance, 'Two Years Of Torture," was arranged by Acea. Bassist Lloyd Trotman's experience includes time spent with such disparate people as Eddie Heywood, Hazel Scott, Duke Ellington, Pete Brown, Wilbur De Paris, Boyd Raeburn and Johnny Hodges. And finally, there is drummer Willie Bobo, most widely known for his part in the current popularity of Afro-jazz.

The Texas influence on Wilkerson is evident in his choice of material. The opener, Wilkerson's own "Senorita Eula," is a blues with Spanish (or Mexican) overtones. Wilkerson's preaching solo more than justifies the album's title, Elder Don, but as impressive as its emotional quality are the strong order and logic he brings to his ideas. Also interesting is the economical way he brings strong support to Green's single-line solo. Green, the only holdover from Wilkerson's previous LP, shows a great affinity with the leader's approach

Indirectly, perhaps Ray Charles can also be credited with the inclusion in this album of Bob Wills's "San Antonio Rose." Just as he raised so-called "rock 'n' roll" to the level of art, Charles has recently pointed out to jazzmen and pop artists alike the possibilities inherent in country-and-western music. "Rose" is one of the best of the song's, a classic in its field, and Wilkerson gives it an unusual and appropriate performance. The Cuban overtones in the statement of the tune are not dropped from the solos, as many groups would do, but continue through Wilkerson's and Green's choruses to reach a peak in Johnny Acea's piano solo, which would be perfectly in place in a Cuban band. The result is a performance which combines country music, Cuban music and jazz into a unique, exciting whole.

Three other Wilkerson originals, "Scrappy," "Lone Star Shuffle" and "Drawin' A Tip,"
account for half the LP. The first is a "rhythm" number, played with fast intensity. The second, a shuffle blues, as its title implies, is typical of the power and excitement which often erupts on the bandstands of local clubs late at night, when the musicians are in good form and the audience reception has been responsible for raising the temperature of the room. The third could loosely be described as a medium jump number, also a club standby.
The final number, "Poor Butterfly," is a ballad. Much space has been devoted to dance music in these remarks, but Wilkerson's performance here certainly necessitates further comment. Much dancing is slow dancing, of course, and the rare jazzman who can sustain the dancing feel at a slow tempo while still creating meaningful music is a valuable man to have around. Many young musicians can create nothing but funeral music at this tempo, but Wilkerson manages to be light and charming, while still properly reflective.

Taken together, these six pieces by tenor saxophonist Don Wilkerson provide a fascinating
example of the fact that while many of today's jazzmen have left behind the dance origins
of their music, others have retained those origins and use them as a basis to make highly
direct and satisfyinq music.


SHOUTIN' is Don Wilkerson's third celebration of the blues heritage for this label. (His previous Blue Note albums are Preach Brother!, BLP 4107 and Elder Don, BLP 4121.)

Wilkerson plays a very basic style of jazz, a genre that has gone largely untouched by post-Bop advances (at least not by many beyond those of Horace Silver and the early Sonny Rollins) and which is informed almost exclusively - technically and inspirationally - by the essential sources, gospel and the blues. The scope and breadth of its expression is restricted pretty much to the experiences and emotions which these sources are about. On this basis, and by the standards of 1963, it is probably valid to call Wilkerson's jazz "primitive." But this is not meant to imply a derogation of either the music or the man who is making it, rather it is intended to define both in their relationship to other contemporary jazz forms and artists.

Wilkerson's music is no less contemporary than, say, Ornette Coleman's or Cecil Taylor's, for it too would express a contemporary reality; in Wilkerson's instance the reality of Harlem - most immediately, for him, East Texas Harlem and New York, Chicago or San Francisco Harlem as well. If the Colemans and Taylors have somehow managed to transcend their origins, escape the trappings of the ghetto, go on to discover other realities, and learn how their origins can nourish rather than confine their art, the Wilkersons work within the limitations of what is accessible to them, the traditions and sources they are permitted to claim. But compelling music can be made within these boundaries as the album at hand will witness, for Wilkerson and his associates are into the music. Their work has fire and commitment and these finally are all that matter because it is these energies which move and touch.
Many jazz musicians will describe that prerequisite quality and dimension of "soul" as the badge of the hardships that are endured in the struggle to merely survive. But soul, when it is genuinely present, is more than that. The very act of making music is, in itself, not only a means of coming to terms with the circumstances of the environment, but also a way of transcending the environment. Soul comes from the victories that one may win over the environment, which is to say the ability to make use of one's creative capacities. It is about feeling good too, and the best of our jazzmen, the most soulful of them, have arrived at this.

Obviously Wilkerson has. Much jazz of this genre is blunted by anger. But Wilkerson's music would seem to be more about joy than anger. "Sweet Cake" is the work of a New Orleans musician and friend of Wilkerson named Edward Frank. But "Movin' Out," "Cookin' With Clarence," "Happy Johnny" (which has undertones of Miles Davis's "Milestones") are all Wilkerson's lines; all of them simple, rhythmically alive and infectious. "Blues For J," also by Wilkerson, is an impassioned communication of the basic statement. How sophisticated Wilkerson and his colleagues are as regards the kind of jazz they choose to play, is perhaps most stirringly demonstrated on this track.

Rhythm is the key virtue of Wilkerson's talent. As an instrumentalist he is not in possession of the big, booming sound of many of his similarly persuaded colleagues, but his solos have great movement and lifting rhythmic charge. "Happy Johnny" and, to an even greater extent, "Cookin' With Clarence," on which the entire group excels (Grant Green and John Patton contribute electric solos), are exemplary of this, Wilkerson is also able to sustain a ballad tempo (on this album it is "Easy Living") without the price of melodic paralysis. Patton's accompaniment on this number is especially lovely.

Wilkerson came to this series of Blue Note recordings with a background firmly entrenched in the idiom, though he has not gone entirely untouched by more advanced jazz players. He was born in Moreauville, Louisiana in 1932 and grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana and Houston. His first jobs were in those areas and later he traveled to Southern California where he worked and recorded with R&B bands, notably those of Amos Milburn and Charles Brown. During his time on the coast he also got to play with such jazz musicians as Sonny Clark, Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray. In 1954 Wilkerson joined a band newly organized by Ray Charles and he is the featured tenor soloist on many of Charles's most popular recordings; "I Got A Woman/' 'This Little Girl Of Mine/' "Come Back Baby," "Hallelujah," "\ Love Her So," etc.

The tenor saxophonists whom Wilkerson acknowledges to have made the strongest impressions upon him have been Sonny Stiff, Ike Quebec, Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb, Gene Ammons, Paul Gonsalves and Sonny Rollins. These are exceptional players, at least one is more than that, but it is not unlikely that Wilkerson, in the not too distant future, will achieve a similar stature.

The accompanying players on this set; Green, guitar; Patton, organ and Ben Dixon, drums, are outstanding exponents of the idiom in their own right. Two of them, Green and Patton, have their own series of Blue Note albums, and Dixon is generally considered .to be one of the most talented of the newer guitar players — probably only Kenny Burrell challenges his new and lofty eminence on the New York scene. Listen particularly to his fascinating work on "Cookin' With Clarence" and "Happy Johnny." Patton can claim an original ear and, though he too can shout, a uniquely gifted sense of the more subtle expressive possibilities of the organ. His comping on all the numbers in this set is brilliantly alive.

"Alive" is a word that could be accurately applied to what happens on the entire album. The conditions out of which these musicians have come are hardly conducive to anything but the opposite of that word, but Wilkerson and the others have discovered in their music where the life is.

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