by Ian Mann
August 08, 2019
"Bloom" documents the already remarkable empathy between the three musicians and embraces a wide variety of jazz styles, while simultaneously establishing a strong group identity.
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4737)
Jeff Williams - drums, Carmen Staaf - piano, Michael Formanek - double bass
The American drummer and composer Jeff Williams was born in 1950 in Mount Vernon, Ohio but made his name on the jazz scenes in Boston and New York City. I first heard and enjoyed his playing on a series of 1970s albums by groups led variously by saxophonist Dave Liebman, pianist Richie Beirach and bassist Frank Tusa.
Williams has also worked with an impressive roster of other major jazz artists during his long career including lengthy stints with saxophonists Stan Getz and Lee Konitz. He has also performed with Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, Cedar Walton, Art Farmer, Michel Petrucciani, Randy Brecker, Paul Bley, John Abercrombie, John Scofield, Kenny Barron, Tony Malaby, Dave Holland, Tom Harrell, Bill McHenry, Joe Lovano. Ted Curson, Jerry Bergonzi and many more. It’s an impressive list.
The album “Coalescence”, his leadership début, appeared in 1991 but by this time Williams had dropped off my radar only to re-emerge again in the 21st century thanks to his collaborations with the British musicians Martin Speake (alto sax) and Barry Green (piano). Other UK based musicians with whom he has worked include Nikki Iles, Kenny Wheeler, Norma Winstone, Hans Koller and others.
Williams first came to the UK in 2003 following his marriage to the American writer Lionel Shriver. The author was already based in Britain at this time and was reluctant to leave so the couple began an ongoing Transatlantic existence with Williams continuing to maintain homes in both London and New York.
The drummer has continued to work with both American and British musicians and the last few years have been a particularly prolific and productive period for him with the release of a number of albums variously featuring his ‘New York’ and ‘London’ bands, and latterly incorporating a degree of cross-fertilisation between the two.
2011 saw the release of “Another Time”, his début for bassist Michael Janisch’s Whirlwind Recordings label. This excellent album featured the American musicians John O’Gallagher (alto sax), Duane Eubanks (trumpet) and John Hebert (double bass). The quartet subsequently toured Britain to considerable critical acclaim in 2012 with the fruits of their labours being documented on a second Whirlwind release, the live album “The Listener”, recorded at The Vortex Jazz Club in London. I was lucky enough to witness and review a performance by this stellar line up on the final night of that tour at The Cross in Moseley, Birmingham.
Besides his ‘American Quartet’ Williams has also run his own British quintet, the first edition of which included the twin saxophone front line of Josh Arcoleo (tenor) and Finn Peters (alto) alongside Phil Robson on guitar and Sam Lasserson on double bass. I was fortunate enough to see a hugely exciting performance by this incarnation of the group at a crowded Green Note in Camden Town as part of the 2013 EFG London Jazz Festival. The music of this particular line up was documented on the live album “Concert In The Amazon”, recorded in Brazil at the Manaus Jazz Festival and released as a limited edition CD on Williams’ own Willful Music imprint http://www.wilfulmusic.com
In early 2015 I witnessed and reviewed the current incarnation of the Williams Quintet at a concert at the CBSO Centre in Birmingham. By this time pianist Kit Downes had replaced the unavailable Finn Peters to complete the line up that appeared on his third Whirlwind release, “Outlier”. That performance, a double bill with saxophonist Mike Fletcher’s trio with whom Williams also plays, included some of the “Outlier” material alongside items from the back catalogue of Williams’ ‘American’ group.
In 2017 Williams released “Lifelike”, a second live recording documenting a performance at that much loved institution the Vortex. For this event a core quintet of Williams, O’Gallagher, Downes and Lasserson was supplemented by the Portuguese trumpeter and composer Goncalo Marquez, a musician whom Williams had met when touring in Portugal with bassist Demian Cabaud’s group in 2016.
Recorded in August 2018 and released in April 2019 “Bloom” features a brand new Williams group and represents his first recording in the ‘piano trio’ format for many years. I still harbour fond memories of Williams’ playing on “Eon”, Richie Beirach’s 1974 début for ECM Records, an album that still sounds astonishingly contemporary.
This latest trio teams Williams with two more American musicians, bassist Michael Formanek, a composer and bandleader in his own right, and the emerging piano discovery, Carmen Staaf.
The coming together of this exciting new trio owes much to serendipity, as Williams’ liner notes explain;
In early 2018 I was performing at Small’s Jazz Club in New York with saxophonist Don Blake’s band The Digging. In the absence of regular pianist Leo Genovese Carmen Staaf took over the piano chair for the night. How could I not know of someone so accomplished? Not only did I lover her adventurous approach combined with impeccable taste, I also felt an uncommonly close musical rapport as we played”.
At around the same time Williams ran into his old friend Formanek, a musician that he played with frequently in the 1970s but only very occasionally since. Having made the decision to record with Staaf in a trio format Williams suggested Formanek as the bass player, remarking “I knew he would be the perfect choice, although they had not yet met. It all just bloomed out of nowhere, hence the album title”.
After a brief rehearsal the newly assembled trio convened at the studio at the Samurai Hotel in Queens to record their début album in a single day. Each member of the trio brought tunes to the session with the only ‘outside’ item being “Air Dancing”, a composition by Jeff’s namesake, the bassist Buster Williams.
The album was largely documented in first takes with Williams commenting;
“Although presented as my album all three of us contributed equally to ‘Bloom’, and it is, importantly, a showcase for Carmen Staaf, one of the freshest voices on her instrument around, and definitely one to watch”.
The album commences with the group improvisation “Scattershot”, the first piece to be recorded that day. Williams describes it as “an improvisation that occurred as we became familiar with the sound while dialling in our headphone mixes”. The piece is paced by Formanek’s propulsive bass lines and the patented ‘polyrhythmic flow’ of Williams’ supple, colourful and always inventing drumming. Staaf finds her own way into this via her darting piano melody lines, revealing a remarkable ability to respond to the musical environment around her. The piece may be a happy accident, created ‘on the fly’ but its energy and inventiveness make it an excellent calling card for the album as a whole. Referring to the overall work Williams comments; “The element of spontaneity is palpable, as we are in fact discovering the music as it unfolds”.
The more formal compositions commence with Williams’ “Another Time”, the title track of the drummer’s 2011 Whirlwind début. Originally the tune was recorded by the chordless line up of Williams, Hebert, Eubanks and O’Gallagher, and it’s interesting to hear it re-imagined for piano trio. The new arrangement helps to bring out the beauty of the melody, a process enhanced by Staaf’s rich flow of melodic inventiveness allied to the colourful nuances of the composer’s drum commentary, his touch at the cymbals as immaculate as ever. Formanek also impresses with a melodic and highly dexterous double bass solo.
When questioned about his propensity for bringing old tunes to the table Williams quotes Thelonious Monk - “I want people to hear them!”. And in any case material like “Another Time” sounds very different in this context.
A glance at Staaf’s website reveals that despite her relatively low profile she has moved in some pretty exalted jazz circles, acting as pianist and musical director for vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater as well as previously performing with such luminaries as saxophonist Wayne Shorter, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and fellow pianist Herbie Hancock. She works extensively with drummer/composer Allison Miller and has also collaborated with violinist Jenny Scheinman and vocalist Thana Alexa. Staaf also leads her own groups and released the sextet album “Day Dream” in 2017.
Staaf makes her compositional début here with the quirky, Monk like “Short Tune”, possibly so called due to its short, staccato phrases. It’s given a breezy reading by the increasingly tight and highly interactive trio with Formanek again featuring as a soloist and Williams enjoying a series of colourful drum breaks. Of Staaf’s own playing Williams comments;
“There’s a certain quirkiness that I like, plus a lot of technique in reserve.”
Next we hear a segue of Williams compositions with the loping odd meter 7/8 grooves of “Scrunge” metamorphosing into the more frenetic and restless “Search Me”, with its darting piano phrases and increasingly busy bass and drum patterns.
Formanek makes his compositional début with the more ruminative “Ballad of the Weak”, a more subdued but no less focussed trio performance that features Williams’ deft and imaginative brush work and Staaf’’s gently probing piano lyricism. The composer’s own sumptuous bass playing, simultaneously grounding and liberating, features prominently.
Williams compares his colleague’s writing with that of some of the jazz greats, “to me, that’s Strayhorn, Duke Ellington, Mingus, all of that quality”.
Staff’s second contribution with the pen is the effective and bluesy “New York Landing” which prompts further praise from Williams - “there are few young musicians who can play the blues like that”, he remarks. Formanek and Williams also impress with succinct bass and drum features and the level of interaction between the three musicians is also excellent throughout.
Williams’ own “She Can’t Be A Spy” is another piano trio arrangement of a tune originally performed by the earlier chordless quartet. With no specific chord changes the players are kept on their toes throughout, responding to each others’ ideas in a fiercely interactive trio performance that still finds plenty of scope for self expression with its features for bass and drums within a spiky three way discussion. For Williams this version of the piece represents “a fun challenge, taking it to the edge of the cliff”.
Buster Williams’ “Air Dancing” proves to be a beautiful ballad from the pen of a musician who has worked with many of the jazz greats. Formanek channels the spirit of Buster with a melodic bass solo while Staaf is at her most lyrical at the piano. Jeff Williams provides subtly detailed brushed drum commentary and colouration.
Formanek’s “A Word Edgewise” introduces another aspect of his writing, a more forcefully swinging piece propelled by his own muscular bass lines and also featuring his virtuoso bass soloing. Williams’ loose limbed drumming with its splashy cymbal work serves the music well and he also gets to enjoy a feature during the latter stages of the tune. Staaf is feverishly inventive at the piano with her skittering runs, sophisticated chording and lively interactions with her colleagues.
Williams recorded his composition “Northwest” with the pianist Frank Kimbrough some years ago and the piece reflects a gentler side of his writing. This is the lengthiest item on the recording and sees the trio stretching out in more relaxed fashion with Williams’ mellifluous theme providing the framework for Staaf’s expansive but lyrical soloing. Formanek’s bass solo combines melodicism with a deep resonance while Williams drums with his customary intuitiveness, always with an ear for subtle nuance and an eye for fine detail.
The album closes with Staaf’s deeply atmospheric “Chant”, which combines gamelan inspired piano with grainy arco bass allied to mallet rumbles and shimmering percussive embellishments. It represents a zen like oasis of calm in comparison to the intensity of some of the earlier performances and the overall effect is hauntingly beautiful.
For a group this early in its development “Bloom” represents a considerable achievement. Recorded over the course of a single day it documents the already remarkable empathy between the three musicians and embraces a wide variety of jazz styles, while simultaneously establishing a strong group identity. The music is bright, colourful, inventive and consistently interesting.
Williams hopes to work with this trio again, with Bloom likely to become a band name as well as an album title. It’s certainly an effective showcase for the excellent Staaf, who is probably a new name to many British jazz listeners. Let’s hope that Williams can bring the trio to the UK for some live appearances.
I’ll leave the last word with Williams;
“I grew up listening to may piano trios, especially Ahmad Jamal’s from around 1958-62, so that influenced my playing. But there’s no fixed concept, and this was simply a case of ‘let’s see what we can do with it’. I’ve always played with people who inspire me, enjoying the conversation, going into some depth and often thinking about the musicians rather than the instrumentation. So I hope Bloom will allow us to flourish in pursuing this trio further.”