Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Jeff Williams



by Ian Mann

July 09, 2018


This isn’t a band that’s prepared to sit on its laurels, each performance challenges the musicians and pushes at the boundaries of the written material. A highly worthwhile listening experience.

Jeff Williams


(Whirlwind Recordings WR4721)

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.

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 group 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

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 appears on “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 January 2018 Williams brought the current edition of his quintet with O’Gallagher, Arcoleo, Downes and Lasserson to The Hive Music & Media Centre in Shrewsbury for a “state of the art”  performance that is the subject of a review elsewhere on this site and from which the above introductory paragraphs have been lifted.

At the time of the Shrewsbury performance (promoted by Shrewsbury Jazz Network) this new live album, “Lifelike”, had been recorded but not released. The recording documents a performance at that much loved institution the Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston, London in June 2017. For this event the core quintet was supplemented by the Portuguese trumpeter and composer Goncalo Marquez, a musician whom Williams had met when touring in Portgual with bassist Demian Cabaud’s group in 2016.

Williams explains the album title thus;
“Lifelike is another way of saying ‘Live’. The word is usually ascribed to inanimate objects and I always found that humorous. Basically I felt that this recording has ‘life’ in it, the kind of ‘life’ embodied in a live performance”.

Although the bulk of the material has appeared on previous recordings Williams’ writing allows considerable scope for improvisation, therefore no two renditions of any particular piece will ever be completely the same. Throw in an additional instrumental voice in the shape of Marquez and “Lifelike” represents a unique document.

The recording commences with “Under The Radar”, a tune from the “Another Time” album that Williams describes as “a six bar blues”. The performance begins with the unaccompanied sound of the leader’s drums, played with bare hands I would say. Williams colourful drum patterns are quickly augmented by Lasserson’s muscular, but subtle, bass lines as this now well established rhythm partnership engage in an absorbing dialogue. Williams finally picks up his sticks as the horns enter the fray, briefly sketching the theme before shading off into individual solos, Marquez going first, probing thoughtfully to begin with before stretching out more forcefully in an impressive display encompassing power, intelligence and technique. He’s shadowed by Downes’ piano as Lasserson and Williams provide fluid, colourful rhythmic support with the leader’s nimble cymbal work a particular point of interest. Marquez is followed by Downes, whose solo follows a similar trajectory. Interestingly this piece was first recorded by Williams’ chordless American quartet but the always excellent Downes very much makes it his own here with a solo that combines imagination and inventiveness with great virtuosity.

“The Interloper” first appeared on Williams’ most recent studio album “Outlier”. Williams explains the inspiration behind the tune as being; “someone who is oblivious to his surroundings and is always the last to leave the party”  adding “it came to me in various playful rhythmic permutations”.  He also acknowledges that the piece has “a Monkian sensibility, though it wasn’t intentional, the melody dictated the form, making the structures unusual and challenging to maintain for soloing”.  Nevertheless his colleagues rise superbly to that challenge with the two saxophonists featuring back to back and at length with the powerful, fluent Arcoleo laying down the gauntlet on tenor. O’Gallagher responds in kind, with one particularly dynamic passage underscored by Williams’ volcanic, restlessly inventive drumming. It’s thrilling stuff, a musical white knuckle ride.

Also from the “Outlier” album “Dream Visitor” was initially inspired by Miles Davis’ “Spanish Key” from the seminal “Bitches Brew” album. In this incarnation it’s centred around Lasserson’s bass line and cleverly shifts key centres throughout allowing each soloist a different tonality to explore. And explore they do with concise but fiery solos coming from Marquez, Arcoleo and O’Gallagher. Bassist Lasserson also features briefly as a soloist before adopting a more overtly funky bass line above which the horns exchange ideas in thrillingly garrulous fashion before spontaneously coalescing just before the close. “The overall trajectory is mapped out, but that horn figure just happened”, explains Williams.

Originally written in the 1990s the tune “Lament” subsequently resurfaced on the “Listener” album and has remained in Williams’ repertoire since. It’s a highly personal composition, dedicated  to a former drum student named Peter whose life fell into disarray before his tragic and untimely demise in an accident. This version begins with the sound of Lasserson’s unaccompanied bass, later joined in sombre dialogue by Downes’ piano before O’Gallagher sketches the melody. We then hear Downes’ lyrical, subtly blues tinged piano, accompanied by the swish of the leader’s brushes. “The rubato section of ‘Lament’ is almost like a fugue’ Williams explains, “Peter was from New Orleans and so the beginning is like a funeral service, while the swing section is like the second line that celebrates the deceased”. The dramatic, two part “Lament” with its quiet, sombre introduction contrasting with the louder second section has always been a hugely effective live item. Williams’ tunes are always involving and here the second part sounds more genuinely celebratory than the previous incarnations I’ve heard where the intensity of O’Gallagher’s alto soloing has always seemed to me to express the composer’s anger at an early and unnecessary death. Nevertheless there’s still plenty of fire in the solos here as O’Gallagher and Arcoloeo lock horns, lashed forward by the leader’s dynamic drumming.

“Borderline” is another 90s piece revived and re-invented by the current group. This version begins with sound of Williams’ drums, unaccompanied at first but with his colourful promptings subsequently answered by Arcoleo as the pair embark upon a spirited, but absorbing musical conversation.  A bright, punchy theme subsequently emerges as the ensemble temporarily coalesces prior to further solos from Lasserson on virtuoso double bass, unaccompanied at first, but later joined in dialogue by the patter of the leader’s drums before Downes eventually takes over, again in conversation with Williams. The piece resolves itself with a brief ensemble reprise of the main theme.

Marquez’s piece “Cancao do Amolador” is the only non-Williams composition in the set. The pair performed the tune with Cabaud in 2016 and the piece is a showcase for the leader’s peerless trumpeting, initially in a freely structured dialogue with Williams. The horns then combine on a chorale like theme that acts as the springboard for further trumpet pyrotechnics from the composer, still in conversation with Williams. There’s an unmistakably Iberian feel about the music with Marquez’s writing and playing evoking comparisons with Miles Davis and “Sketches of Spain”. The piece progresses through a passage of ensemble playing with the horns chorusing above the rolling rhythms generated by Downes, Lasserson and Williams and there’s a brief passage where Downes piano comes to the fore prior to a more formal group finale.

The title of the closing “Double Life” reflects both Williams’ Atlantic hopping lifestyle and the “second life that I gave the tune by reworking it”. It may also refer the shift from waltz time to double 4/4 that occurs part way through the piece. Downes, Lasserson and Williams introduce the piece in piano trio mode but are soon joined by the horns with a catchy hook that combines with a buoyant groove to set the mood for the performance. O’Gallagher and Arcoleo trade powerful solos while Downes matches them for fluency, inventiveness and intensity. Lasserson impresses once more at the bass and there’s a closing flourish from the leader at the drums.

Williams has a fondness for live recordings, believing them to catch the very spirit of jazz and “Lifelike” performs this function admirably. Many of these tunes may have been recorded before but they have never sounded exactly like this, while my numerous visits to Williams live shows over the years provide ample evidence that his compositions, written at the piano, are constantly evolving and remain fertile vehicles for improvisation.

Williams’ themes are often complex and the uncompromising nature of his group’s performances make for challenging, but still readily accessible listening. Some listeners may be a little frightened by the intensity of it all but most genuine jazz fans should find much to enjoy about Williams’ music, not least the playing itself which is superb throughout.

Besides the undoubted technical ability there’s a refreshing attitude about the Williams group, this isn’t a band that’s prepared to sit on its laurels, each performance challenges the musicians and pushes at the boundaries of the written material with intense, adventurous, fluent solos imbued with colour, imagination and intelligence.

At the heart of it all is Williams himself who plays with great technical facility and a steely intelligence that pushes and challenges his colleagues and gets the best out of them. His own playing brings out the full potential of the standard drum kit, the broad range of sounds and rhythms that he generates helping to propel his band mates to fresh heights. Despite the presence of previously released material “Lifelike” still represents a highly worthwhile listening experience.

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