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Jeff Williams - Jeff Williams Quartet, The Cross, Moseley, Birmingham,09/05/2012. Rating: 4 out of 5 An ensemble that excelled both collectively and individually, suitably tight on written ensemble passages, commendably loose and creative when soloing.

Jeff Williams Quartet, The Cross, Moseley, Birmingham, 09/05/2012

I’ve been familiar with the playing of drummer Jeff Williams for over thirty years, first discovering him on vinyl albums by saxophonist Dave Liebman (“Lookout Farm” 1973, “Drum Ode” 1974 both ECM and “Sweet Hands” 1975 A & M), pianist Richie Beirach (“Eon”  1974 ECM) and bassist Frank Tusa (“Father Time” 1975 Enja). This all coincided with my late 70’s/early 80’s craze for ECM records and related projects, I still like the label but tend to view its output rather more objectively these days.

Williams then dropped off my radar for a number of years but I was re-introduced to his playing in 2009 via live dates by British saxophonist Martin Speake’s “Change Of Heart” and “Generations” groups. Williams was depping for the late,great Paul Motian in the former but recorded with the latter. By now he was living a Transatlantic existence with homes in both London and New York and was playing with musicians from both cities. I’d always considered him to be the perfect accompanist, a tasteful, technically accomplished player with an exquisite cymbal touch who enriched any project he was involved in.

In 2011 Williams released his first album as a leader for over a decade. “Another Time”, the title a reference to Williams’ unique rhythmic conception, revealed a different, more forceful aspect to his playing. The album, released on Michael Janisch’s Whirlwind label is reviewed elsewhere on this site and consists of a set of strong original themes by Williams and his American band-mates Duane Eubanks (trumpet), John O’Gallagher (alto sax) and John Hebert (double bass). The album features five tunes by Williams and one each from each of his band-mates. The chordless instrumentation ensures that the album owes a healthy debt to the music of Ornette Coleman but the strength of the themes, many of them are highly melodic, and the quality of the improvising ensures that the album is never “difficult” and is actually very exciting. These are qualities that the group also bring to their live performances.

Williams initially launched the album at the 2011 London Jazz Festival with a UK band featuring experienced guitarist Phil Robson and two rising stars in the form of bassist Sam Lasserson and saxophonist Josh Arcoleo. I missed out on seeing this but having enjoyed the album was determined to catch up with the American edition of the band, the line up who actually appeared on the album and for whom this music was written. Their short UK tour took them to London’s Vortex, Cheltenham Jazz Festival and the Turner Sims Concert Hall in Southampton. Initially I was bitterly disappointed to see that the Cheltenham festival appearance by Williams quartet had been scheduled directly opposite Norwegian pianist Helge Lien’s trio, the latter’s only UK appearance and another group I was desperate to see. A tough decision then but one that was rendered redundant when an extra date in Birmingham was added to the itinerary of the Williams tour. Now I could get the best of both worlds, my thanks to Lee Paterson for arranging my press ticket for the event in Moseley. As for the Lien trio they proved to be one of the many highlights of an excellent festival weekend, coverage of which can be found elsewhere on this site.

Delighted as I was to be catching the Williams group there were moments when I doubted the wisdom of my decision as we drove through appalling weather (fog, heavy rain) to reach the venue. Organised by the Cobweb Collective, an aggregation of young Birmingham based musicians the gig took place in the function room above the Cross public house. After a filling and tasty meal of bangers and mash downstairs I felt much better but the weather seemed to have affected the attendance. Most of the audience were students from the jazz course at Birmingham Conservatoire (where Williams sometimes teaches) but one sensed that the general public were in pretty short supply. The fact that there was a major football match in the city that night may not have helped (Birmingham losing out to Blackpool in the Championship play off semi finals) but the enthusiasm of the students helped to carry the day. Well done to Mike Fletcher and Nick Jurd who seemed to be doing most of the organising and to Tony Dudley Evans who looked after the band.

Speaking to members of the quartet after the show they expressed themselves pleased to have finished the tour in an informal setting following prestigious gigs in London and Cheltenham and a concert hall appearance at Southampton. There was a happy go lucky nature to the Birmingham performance that encouraged some great playing in a good natured set marking the last night of the tour. Eubanks, O’Gallagher and Hebert were all due to fly back to the States the following day.  The group took the opportunity of adding some new tunes to the set with trumpeter Eubanks particularly well represented.

Williams came in from the rain sporting the calf length leather coat he wears on the album cover. Its removal marked the start of the gig as he took his place at his kit to produce a spectacular barrage of solo drumming, the intro to Eubanks’ as yet unrecorded piece ” Beer and Water”, perhaps an apt title given the circumstances. From the off it was apparent just how loud the group were despite minimal amplification, neither of the horn players were using mics or bugs. Snaking unison horn lines mutated into the initial solo of the night with Eubanks going first, his tone sharp and burnished. .Reports had reached me from Cheltenham saying what a good set the quartet had played at the new venue of the Parabola Arts Centre and what a monster player O’Gallagher had been. As the time came for his solo the saxophonist positioned himself into a crouch, legs bowed and punching out the notes with a passion, his tone a marvellous blend of clarity and pugnaciousness.  Williams meanwhile attacked his cymbals and was featured in a flurry of fiery drum breaks, speaking later of the need to release some of his aggression “up front”.  Certainly this was Williams as I’d never seen or heard him before and he was clearly relishing the opportunity to both take musical risks and give his kit a damn good hammering. Lithe and wiry he played with a power and precision that belied his 60+ years.

From the album Hebert’s “Fez” introduced an element of exotica with its North African flavourings. The theme was presaged by a lengthy passage of virtuoso solo bass with Hebert concentrating his activities high up the neck of the instrument. Born in New Orleans but now based in new York Hebert is not only a fine soloist but also a versatile and adaptable accompanist, well capable of dealing with any musical demands that are thrown at him. My only previous sighting of him was at the Midlands Arts Centre as a dep for Drew Gress in the Anglo American quartet co- led by pianist Liam Noble and guitarist Phil Robson back in 2006 and then playing in saxophonist Julian Arguelles’ trio (this time replacing Michael Formanek) as part of a unique double bill.
Williams’ own playing on “Fez” was superb, the busily eccentric polyrhythmic patter of his hand drums cushioning the sinuous horns of Eubanks and O’Gallagher and prompting excellent solos from both with Eubanks bravura open horn trumpeting particularly impressive.

Williams’ “She Can’t Be A Spy” , a piece also featured on the album, was inspired by the news story of Russian spies infiltrating American society.  The piece has a subtly bluesy, Coleman-esque feel to it with this live incarnation particularly notable for the fluent duet between Eubanks and Hebert.

The informal nature of the show was typified by the impromptu discussion between the band members about which tune to play next. Eventually they decided on the splendid new Eubanks composition “Slewfooted” with Hebert’s introductory arco bass leading to fiery solos from Eubanks, O’Gallagher and Williams before a rousing Ornette-ish coda. Eubanks is a member of a Philadelphia musical dynasty that also includes his brothers Kevin (guitar) and Robin (trombone). 

To close the first set the quartet cooled thing down with O’Gallagher’s impressionistic ballad “Go Where You’re Watching”. One of the album highlights Williams’ described the tune as “poignant and beautiful” and this was demonstrated by the tenderness of the introduction by unaccompanied horns, Williams’ later sympathetic brush work and a further duet between Eubanks and Hebert. Williams gave a verbal instruction to the group to “play out the theme” which they did in a beguiling haze of gently dovetailing horns. This was a lovely if low key way to conclude an excellent and consistently absorbing first set.

The second half began in extraordinary fashion with Williams’ highly personal composition “Lament”, a dedication to a tragic former drum student named Peter whose life fell in to disarray before his untimely demise in an accident. Hebert introduced the tune with sombre solo bass before Eubanks’ valedictory trumpet sounded a kind of “last post”. It was left to O’Gallagher to express the rage that Williams felt about this tragic life and needless death with a bellicose, wailing solo that reached searing levels of intensity spurred on by the lash of the composer’s drums. As the piece concluded O’Gallagher towelled himself down vigorously.

The title of “Another Time” references both Williams’ unique method of playing and the current economic and political climate. Time Out NY famously made reference to Williams’ “supple polythytmic flow” and that’s a quality that was personified in this tune with both Eubanks and O’Glaagher making typically substantial solo contributions.

Williams delved into his back catalogue for “Borderline” a song culled from his 1995 album “Jazzblues” featuring pianist Kevin Hays. The self deprecating Williams described the tune as “silly” and it certainly possessed an agreeable quirkiness, at times almost crossing over into Mexican mariachi music. Solos came from from both Eubanks and O’Gallagher before a major feature for the virile and versatile bass playing of Hebert who delivered a stunning solo statement.

These had been three very lengthy items with extended solos and the set seemed to be over almost before it had begun. Nonetheless there was sufficient audience enthusiasm for the quartet to return for an encore, the very Coleman-esque “Under The Radar” with Hebert’s Charlie Haden like bass pulse providing the pivot for final statements from Eubanks and O’Gallagher. There was also a delightful exchange of ideas between the “Engine room” of Hebert and Williams to round off an excellent night of music making.

This had been a thoroughly enjoyable evening spent listening to a band with chops to burn and a close knit camaraderie that encourages the free exchange of musical ideas. The writing had provided a strong frame work to build around and this was an ensemble that excelled both collectively and individually, suitably tight on written ensemble passages, commendably loose and creative when soloing. I also spoke to all the members of the group and found them to be thoroughly nice guys who had very much enjoyed their time in the UK. All are players I’d be keen to see again whether in this band or in other contexts.

In the end my battle with the elements was more than justified by the quality of the music on offer. Well done to all concerned.
 

 

       

Jeff Williams Quartet, The Cross, Moseley, Birmingham,09/05/2012.

Jeff Williams

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Reviewed by: Ian Mann

Live Review

4 out of 5

Jeff Williams Quartet, The Cross, Moseley, Birmingham,09/05/2012.

An ensemble that excelled both collectively and individually, suitably tight on written ensemble passages, commendably loose and creative when soloing.

Jeff Williams Quartet, The Cross, Moseley, Birmingham, 09/05/2012

I’ve been familiar with the playing of drummer Jeff Williams for over thirty years, first discovering him on vinyl albums by saxophonist Dave Liebman (“Lookout Farm” 1973, “Drum Ode” 1974 both ECM and “Sweet Hands” 1975 A & M), pianist Richie Beirach (“Eon”  1974 ECM) and bassist Frank Tusa (“Father Time” 1975 Enja). This all coincided with my late 70’s/early 80’s craze for ECM records and related projects, I still like the label but tend to view its output rather more objectively these days.

Williams then dropped off my radar for a number of years but I was re-introduced to his playing in 2009 via live dates by British saxophonist Martin Speake’s “Change Of Heart” and “Generations” groups. Williams was depping for the late,great Paul Motian in the former but recorded with the latter. By now he was living a Transatlantic existence with homes in both London and New York and was playing with musicians from both cities. I’d always considered him to be the perfect accompanist, a tasteful, technically accomplished player with an exquisite cymbal touch who enriched any project he was involved in.

In 2011 Williams released his first album as a leader for over a decade. “Another Time”, the title a reference to Williams’ unique rhythmic conception, revealed a different, more forceful aspect to his playing. The album, released on Michael Janisch’s Whirlwind label is reviewed elsewhere on this site and consists of a set of strong original themes by Williams and his American band-mates Duane Eubanks (trumpet), John O’Gallagher (alto sax) and John Hebert (double bass). The album features five tunes by Williams and one each from each of his band-mates. The chordless instrumentation ensures that the album owes a healthy debt to the music of Ornette Coleman but the strength of the themes, many of them are highly melodic, and the quality of the improvising ensures that the album is never “difficult” and is actually very exciting. These are qualities that the group also bring to their live performances.

Williams initially launched the album at the 2011 London Jazz Festival with a UK band featuring experienced guitarist Phil Robson and two rising stars in the form of bassist Sam Lasserson and saxophonist Josh Arcoleo. I missed out on seeing this but having enjoyed the album was determined to catch up with the American edition of the band, the line up who actually appeared on the album and for whom this music was written. Their short UK tour took them to London’s Vortex, Cheltenham Jazz Festival and the Turner Sims Concert Hall in Southampton. Initially I was bitterly disappointed to see that the Cheltenham festival appearance by Williams quartet had been scheduled directly opposite Norwegian pianist Helge Lien’s trio, the latter’s only UK appearance and another group I was desperate to see. A tough decision then but one that was rendered redundant when an extra date in Birmingham was added to the itinerary of the Williams tour. Now I could get the best of both worlds, my thanks to Lee Paterson for arranging my press ticket for the event in Moseley. As for the Lien trio they proved to be one of the many highlights of an excellent festival weekend, coverage of which can be found elsewhere on this site.

Delighted as I was to be catching the Williams group there were moments when I doubted the wisdom of my decision as we drove through appalling weather (fog, heavy rain) to reach the venue. Organised by the Cobweb Collective, an aggregation of young Birmingham based musicians the gig took place in the function room above the Cross public house. After a filling and tasty meal of bangers and mash downstairs I felt much better but the weather seemed to have affected the attendance. Most of the audience were students from the jazz course at Birmingham Conservatoire (where Williams sometimes teaches) but one sensed that the general public were in pretty short supply. The fact that there was a major football match in the city that night may not have helped (Birmingham losing out to Blackpool in the Championship play off semi finals) but the enthusiasm of the students helped to carry the day. Well done to Mike Fletcher and Nick Jurd who seemed to be doing most of the organising and to Tony Dudley Evans who looked after the band.

Speaking to members of the quartet after the show they expressed themselves pleased to have finished the tour in an informal setting following prestigious gigs in London and Cheltenham and a concert hall appearance at Southampton. There was a happy go lucky nature to the Birmingham performance that encouraged some great playing in a good natured set marking the last night of the tour. Eubanks, O’Gallagher and Hebert were all due to fly back to the States the following day.  The group took the opportunity of adding some new tunes to the set with trumpeter Eubanks particularly well represented.

Williams came in from the rain sporting the calf length leather coat he wears on the album cover. Its removal marked the start of the gig as he took his place at his kit to produce a spectacular barrage of solo drumming, the intro to Eubanks’ as yet unrecorded piece ” Beer and Water”, perhaps an apt title given the circumstances. From the off it was apparent just how loud the group were despite minimal amplification, neither of the horn players were using mics or bugs. Snaking unison horn lines mutated into the initial solo of the night with Eubanks going first, his tone sharp and burnished. .Reports had reached me from Cheltenham saying what a good set the quartet had played at the new venue of the Parabola Arts Centre and what a monster player O’Gallagher had been. As the time came for his solo the saxophonist positioned himself into a crouch, legs bowed and punching out the notes with a passion, his tone a marvellous blend of clarity and pugnaciousness.  Williams meanwhile attacked his cymbals and was featured in a flurry of fiery drum breaks, speaking later of the need to release some of his aggression “up front”.  Certainly this was Williams as I’d never seen or heard him before and he was clearly relishing the opportunity to both take musical risks and give his kit a damn good hammering. Lithe and wiry he played with a power and precision that belied his 60+ years.

From the album Hebert’s “Fez” introduced an element of exotica with its North African flavourings. The theme was presaged by a lengthy passage of virtuoso solo bass with Hebert concentrating his activities high up the neck of the instrument. Born in New Orleans but now based in new York Hebert is not only a fine soloist but also a versatile and adaptable accompanist, well capable of dealing with any musical demands that are thrown at him. My only previous sighting of him was at the Midlands Arts Centre as a dep for Drew Gress in the Anglo American quartet co- led by pianist Liam Noble and guitarist Phil Robson back in 2006 and then playing in saxophonist Julian Arguelles’ trio (this time replacing Michael Formanek) as part of a unique double bill.
Williams’ own playing on “Fez” was superb, the busily eccentric polyrhythmic patter of his hand drums cushioning the sinuous horns of Eubanks and O’Gallagher and prompting excellent solos from both with Eubanks bravura open horn trumpeting particularly impressive.

Williams’ “She Can’t Be A Spy” , a piece also featured on the album, was inspired by the news story of Russian spies infiltrating American society.  The piece has a subtly bluesy, Coleman-esque feel to it with this live incarnation particularly notable for the fluent duet between Eubanks and Hebert.

The informal nature of the show was typified by the impromptu discussion between the band members about which tune to play next. Eventually they decided on the splendid new Eubanks composition “Slewfooted” with Hebert’s introductory arco bass leading to fiery solos from Eubanks, O’Gallagher and Williams before a rousing Ornette-ish coda. Eubanks is a member of a Philadelphia musical dynasty that also includes his brothers Kevin (guitar) and Robin (trombone). 

To close the first set the quartet cooled thing down with O’Gallagher’s impressionistic ballad “Go Where You’re Watching”. One of the album highlights Williams’ described the tune as “poignant and beautiful” and this was demonstrated by the tenderness of the introduction by unaccompanied horns, Williams’ later sympathetic brush work and a further duet between Eubanks and Hebert. Williams gave a verbal instruction to the group to “play out the theme” which they did in a beguiling haze of gently dovetailing horns. This was a lovely if low key way to conclude an excellent and consistently absorbing first set.

The second half began in extraordinary fashion with Williams’ highly personal composition “Lament”, a dedication to a tragic former drum student named Peter whose life fell in to disarray before his untimely demise in an accident. Hebert introduced the tune with sombre solo bass before Eubanks’ valedictory trumpet sounded a kind of “last post”. It was left to O’Gallagher to express the rage that Williams felt about this tragic life and needless death with a bellicose, wailing solo that reached searing levels of intensity spurred on by the lash of the composer’s drums. As the piece concluded O’Gallagher towelled himself down vigorously.

The title of “Another Time” references both Williams’ unique method of playing and the current economic and political climate. Time Out NY famously made reference to Williams’ “supple polythytmic flow” and that’s a quality that was personified in this tune with both Eubanks and O’Glaagher making typically substantial solo contributions.

Williams delved into his back catalogue for “Borderline” a song culled from his 1995 album “Jazzblues” featuring pianist Kevin Hays. The self deprecating Williams described the tune as “silly” and it certainly possessed an agreeable quirkiness, at times almost crossing over into Mexican mariachi music. Solos came from from both Eubanks and O’Gallagher before a major feature for the virile and versatile bass playing of Hebert who delivered a stunning solo statement.

These had been three very lengthy items with extended solos and the set seemed to be over almost before it had begun. Nonetheless there was sufficient audience enthusiasm for the quartet to return for an encore, the very Coleman-esque “Under The Radar” with Hebert’s Charlie Haden like bass pulse providing the pivot for final statements from Eubanks and O’Gallagher. There was also a delightful exchange of ideas between the “Engine room” of Hebert and Williams to round off an excellent night of music making.

This had been a thoroughly enjoyable evening spent listening to a band with chops to burn and a close knit camaraderie that encourages the free exchange of musical ideas. The writing had provided a strong frame work to build around and this was an ensemble that excelled both collectively and individually, suitably tight on written ensemble passages, commendably loose and creative when soloing. I also spoke to all the members of the group and found them to be thoroughly nice guys who had very much enjoyed their time in the UK. All are players I’d be keen to see again whether in this band or in other contexts.

In the end my battle with the elements was more than justified by the quality of the music on offer. Well done to all concerned.
 

 

       


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