Whirlwind doesn’t even begin to describe the last two years of Skip Wilkins’ life. He performed and gave workshops during his sabbatical last academic year in the Czech Republic and Slovakia and has done three European tours since. Like the jazz music he plays, much of it has been about improvisation.
His European tours have taken him to venues ranging from live television to large concert halls to intimate clubs with three different groups. He has played for some of the world’s most enthusiastic lovers of jazz, including former Czech President Vaclav Klaus.
As a jazz performer, nothing quite compares to playing live in Europe, says Wilkins, who has been touring in central Europe since 2007.
“Sometimes the applause lasts so long after a particular selection, that I don’t really know what to do. Still. When I first had this experience, I asked myself, ‘What do I do?’” he says.
It was the concert at Prague Castle, given to honor Klaus’ two presidential terms, that Wilkins, associate professor of music, calls “a career highlight, no doubt.” An ardent jazz aficionado, Klaus hosted 91 jazz concerts, called Jazz na Hrade (Jazz at the Castle), during his 10 years in office. In this final one, Wilkins added his name to the list of luminaries who have performed there over the last decade, including the Village Vanguard Orchestra, Mulgrew Miller, Joe Lovano, and many others.
Only three groups were chosen to perform the final concert of Klaus’ presidency. Hundreds attended the live event in the castle’s opulent Spanish Sál, which was broadcast live on Czech television and has already been released on CD in the Czech Republic. When the TV announcer discovered Wilkins’ proficiency with the Czech language, he interviewed Wilkins live in front of the audience, giving Wilkins an opportunity to wish Klaus well in both Czech and English. Wilkins met Klaus later that evening.
In a country long oppressed by Communism, Klaus often referred to jazz as the music of freedom. Fittingly, for the Jazz na Hrade performance, Wilkins and his group Super Trio – WUH (Wilkins, bassist Frantisek Uhlir, and drummer Jaromir Helesic) performed some of their original pieces, including Wilkins’ “Take the Fourth,” a tune he composed on the Fourth of July many years ago.
Most of Wilkins’ performances for this tour have been with Super Trio – WUH, a group that almost didn’t happen. But as he often reminds his students, a performer has to be ready for anything.
Wilkins first played with Uhlir and Helesic at a sleepy little Prague club in January 2012. While they had played together in a quartet twice before, this was their first outing as a trio. The performance was successful, if not uneventful. Set to depart for Germany the next morning for a weekend of performances at well-known venues, Uhlir called Wilkins to fill in when his pianist and drummer came down with the flu. Super Trio – WUH was born at Birdland Neuborg in Germany. Birdland’s owner was unhappy with the last-minute change to the line-up, but with patrons en route, it was too late to cancel the show.
“I love these situations,” says Wilkins. “You have to be ready. Anything can happen. The owner expects something very specific, thinks the performance will be less than satisfactory, and worries about his customers. Not so. The band was on fire. We played to a cheering throng, with obligatory encores.”
The group hit the road for 50 concerts throughout the Czech Republic, Germany, and Switzerland. While the life of a touring musician can be draining—Wilkins plays a different instrument and sleeps in a different bed each night—he considers himself lucky. His last tour with Super Trio – WUH wrapped up in March.
“Live performances can be quite unpredictable,” he says. “One night, I will play a piano that will change my life, and I will be telling stories about it for the rest of my life. Or the acoustics will be superior and the band will capture one tune or another in some manner that ranges from exhilaration to tears, on the part of the musicians and the audience. Or the audience will react in some special way to the music, and that experience stays with me forever.”
His latest European tour is over, but Wilkins isn’t slowing down. Within the next two weeks, he will record with National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master and four-time Grammy winner Phil Woods, the pianist for the Phil Woods Big Band. Wilkins will travel back to the Czech Republic this summer, as he does each year, to compose new vocal arrangements for and direct choirs at the Summer Choral Workshop in Lomnice u Tisnova and at the Karel Velebny Summer Jazz Workshop in Frydlant. He also will conduct an instrumental workshop in Greece.
In addition to the live performance CD from Jazz na Hrade, Wilkins is set to release Czech Dreams, a CD he recorded last year in Prague with the Skip Wilkins Quartet featuring Libor Smoldas. He wrote all of the music for Czech Dreams in Prague and Brno in the months leading up to the recording.