REVIEW: Keyna Wilkins’ crossover projects

Keyna Wilkins is a composer and musician who doesn’t let the grass grow under her feet. Classically trained in the UK and Europe on both piano and flute, Keyna is unconstrained by labels and is constantly exploring new ways to express herself musically. Her music is characterised by a fascination with, as her website says, “astronomy, dance forms, First Nations culture, and jazz and improvisation.” With these two recent albums, one solo piano, another an ensemble project, Keyna Wilkins shows something of her style and musical imagination.

So What Bach 

Johann Sebastian Bach is of course a composer for the ages, a composer whose creative energy continues to astound and inspire countless other composers and performing musicians. Jazz musicians in particular have long been attracted to Bach’s work because the music’s dynamic contrapuntal character renders it very open to improvisation and re-interpretation. Jacques Loussier is probably the most well-known Bach interpreter. But, among other works, there’s also The Modern Jazz Quartet’s Blues on Bach (1973); Bill Evans, who based his ‘Valse‘ on a Bach piece; and Bud Powell who recorded his ‘Bud on Bach‘ in 1957 (although to be completely accurate, that piece was based on a work by Johann Sebastian’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach Bach). Kevin Hunt’s Plays JS Bach was released in 1998; and back in 1940 pianist Hazel Scott recorded her own version of Bachs ‘Two-Part Invention in A Minor’.

Now Keyna Wilkins presents her own exegesis of the great man’s music with So What Bach, a set of solo piano re-interpretations of six timeless pieces. As the album notes explain, the ‘so what’ chord consists of three perfect fourth intervals followed by a major third interval, and originates from Bill Evans’ piano ‘amen’ response to the head of Miles Davis’ ‘So What’. The album opens with ‘Little Prelude in D Minor’.

Only a bar or two into the prelude and I was already hooked. This piece, and the other three preludes Wilkins re-imagines, come from Bach’s seminal work The Well-Tempered Clavier; the other two pieces are an invention and a partita. The six tracks are rather lovely, full of gorgeous rich chords and fascinating deviations.

Keyna’s music moves from occasional percussive undertones into moments of great wistfulness, as in ‘Invention in A Minor’, which is simultaneously baroque and modern, as the pianist’s sure fingers confidently straddle the length of the piano.

‘Prelude in G Minor’ starts with upper registers keys being tickled to produce tinkling bell-like tones; from there it becomes a mix of fugue and ballad, evoking rolling fields on an autumn day, dappled sunlight flickering through yellowing leaves. ‘Partita in C Minor’ begins with the well-known theme and moves into something else entirely, a completely modern extension of Bach’s vision.

Perhaps my favourite track was ‘Prelude in C Major’, as Keyna takes the familiar melody and gives it a contemporaneousness quite different from the approaches taken by Loussier and others. I found myself playing it over and over. Evocative and adventurous, this is a most satisfying album indeed, and a very welcome addition to the ‘Bach meets jazz’ canon.

Ephemera Quartet: Blackholes and Modulations 

The Ephemera Quartet, led by Keyna Wilkins (piano, flute), is “a musical exploration of celestial landscapes, such as pulsars, craters, planetary atmospheres, stars, sun, and void.” Keyna is joined in this musical adventure by Elsen Price (double bass, loop pedal), Will Gilbert (trumpet) and Carl St Jacques (viola). The musicians play a mix of composed and improvised music and also make use of recordings of electromagnetic waves from planets and stars compiled by astronomer Professor Paul Francis.

The result is a kind of contemporary classical music mixed with jazz and improvisational sensibilities, so genres as such are effectively dispensed with. Does it matter? No, because good music is good music.

And this music is definitely good music, excellent music in fact. 

One of the planetary atmospheres the quartet explores is our own. The very atmospheric ‘Earth’ — as seen from space — opens quietly and for a few minutes you could almost be at a classical recital, the haunting melody lulling listeners into a sense of calm, but towards the end of the piece, the gentle mood is shattered with frantic notes suggesting danger, perhaps a meteor shower or some other cosmic disturbance. In ‘Apollo Mission’, voice samples from NASA are incorporated into the piece, including Neil Armstrong’s now immortal words as he stepped onto the surface of the Moon. The mood is very dreamy, Keyna’s piano providing the celestial tenor of the piece, and Will Gilbert’s trumpet acting perhaps as the voice of the pioneering astronauts, full of wonder at what they were about to achieve. The low clear hum of the bass and the melodic viola provide the appropriate gravitas. I was a child when Apollo 11 made history so I listened to this beautiful piece through the personal prism of that well-recalled sense of awe I felt at watching Armstrong and Aldrin walk on the Moon as they were actually doing it. It’s for this reason that this track is my favourite. And in a moment of poetic license, it was also about here that I began thinking of Wilkins, Price, Gilbert and St Jacques as musical astronauts.

Again speaking subjectively, for me the most overtly jazzy piece on the album is ‘Perseid Meteor Shower’. It’s something of a romp, a musical take on the bright spectacle of fast-moving meteors that grace skies each year. Just as the meteors zip through the heavens, so Ephemera zips along with this compelling piece. ‘Chiron’ is a luscious sibylline interplay between Elsen’s bass and Carl’s viola that evokes the small icy body that orbits the Sun in the outer part of our solar system. ‘Mercury Vista’ moodily conjures the rocky planet solely through Elsen’s masterful manipulations on the double bass. ‘Star Trance’ is a singularly well-titled piece: Keyna’s plaintive, hypnotic flute is coupled with quietly startling electronic effects and some of those recorded electromagnetic planetary sounds to convey the sheer far-awayness of these unearthly worlds. The effect is suitably otherworldly. The album ends with ‘Erratic Orbit’, which — in spite of its serious undertones — projects a hushed yet joyful vibrancy.

These are four very fine musicians, playing some quite wonderful music. And I mean wonderful as in full of wonder. Blackholes and Modulations is full of stellar musical surprises — this is an album dripping with beauty, drama and a palpable sense of astonishment at the boundless mysteries of the universe.