by Ian Mann
June 14, 2016
A top notch British band plays superbly throughout with Williams' intelligent but approachable compositions giving them plenty to get their teeth into.
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4684)
The American drummer and composer Jeff Williams was born in 1950 in Oberlin, 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 1970s albums by groups led variously by saxophonist Dave Liebman, pianist Richie Beirach and bassist Frank Tusa.
The album “Coalescence”, Williams 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).
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 five 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’Gallager (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”.
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 http://www.willfulmusic.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 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. I’m fairly certain that John Watson’s live images of the band which adorn the album cover were captured at that gig. For further examples of John’s work please visit http://www.jazzcamera.co.uk Meanwhile Williams is revealed to be a highly competent photographer himself having taken the front cover image.
“Outlier” was recorded at London’s Fish Factory Studios over the course of two days in April 2015 with Williams producing aided by the engineering team of Benedic Lamdin and Alex Bonney. It’s a typically clean and dynamic Whirlwind production that helps to depict the band at their best.
Williams’ liner notes pay tribute to the contribution made to his music by Finn Peters but with Downes on board and providing a second chordal instrument the sound of the current quintet is subtly different to the previous incarnation and even more different to that of the chordless American quartet with its very obvious debt to the music of Ornette Coleman. With both Downes and Robson in the band the music on “Outlier” places a greater emphasis on melody and harmony and in this respect it is one of the most accessible of Williams’ later albums. That said there is no inherent compromise in Williams’ artistic vision with the drummer/composer explaining his intentions for the album thus;
“It’s my continued vision, my aim, to offer something that’s universal but also personal and which might transport the listener into a realm that’s pleasurable and thought-provoking. It’s important to me that within the construction of the music there’s a feeling and a warmth to be discovered”.
The programme consists of seven Williams original compositions with the leader’s liner notes offering brief but illuminating insights into the provenance and the inspiration behind each tune.
Lasserson’s unaccompanied bass introduces the opening title track, a piece that Williams describes as being inspired by saxophonist Joe Henderson’s tune “Y Ya La Quiero”. Williams’ takes Henderson’s bassline rhythm as the starting point for the piece while avoiding specific harmony in order to leave it open to interpretation. Arcoleo’s long, curling saxophone melody lines provide the launch point for melodic, elegant solos from Robson on guitar and Downes on acoustic piano before the tenor man finally weighs in with a solo of his own. Downes also doubles up on Fender Rhodes to provide further underpinning for a tune that also benefits from Lasserson’s grounding bass presence plus the subtly propulsive promptings of the leader at the drums, his cymbal work as immaculate as ever. The title of the piece, and by extension the album, neatly encapsulates the ocean hopping Williams’ position within the British jazz community - “Outlier ; in it, but not of it”.
Williams describes the inspiration behind the “The Interloper” as “someone who is oblivious to his surroundings and is always the last to leave the party”. “It came to me in various playful rhythmic permutations” he explains before adding that Downes “fleshed out some latent harmony and added some key figures”. Williams also comments that the finished piece “reminds me of Thelonious Monk” and there’s something of Monk’s characteristic quirkiness in the rhythmically complex but inherently playful theme which acts as the framework for absorbing solos from Arcoleo on tenor and Downes on acoustic piano
“Dream Visitor” was initially inspired by Miles Davis’ “Spanish Key” from the seminal “Bitches Brew” album. Ultimately it ends up sounding very different but it does use electric instrumentation with Lasserson plugging in on electric bass and Williams demonstrating his keyboard skills on Fender Rhodes. The leader also features behind the kit and Downes adds some acoustic piano but ultimately the feel is substantially different to that of the rest of the album. Arcoleo probes and worries on garrulous tenor, his sound contrasting well with the electric textures created by Williams and Lasserson.
“Meeting A Stranger” first appeared on Williams’ album 1995 “JazzBlues” but it has also been in the repertoire of his ‘British Quintet’ for some time. “I just had to do it again with this group because they interpret it so beautifully” explains Williams. No arguments there about a delightful ballad arrangement of one of Williams’ most direct and beautiful compositions, actually written while he was demonstrating his compositional methods. “The title comes from a potential romantic interlude that panned out bizarrely” comments Williams. An immaculate group performance is crowned by Arcoleo’s mature and thoughtful tenor solo and Downes’ gently lyrical piano feature. Robson solos with a coolly effortless fluency and the leader’s intelligent and sensitive work behind the traps is a delight.
I recall “New And Old” being played by the quintet at the Birmingham performance. In many ways it is the most poignant piece on the album and is dedicated to the memory of Williams’ father who sadly passed away in March 2014 as the result of a brain tumour. However the piece is also a celebration of the life of Williams Sr. and his love of straight ahead jazz, melody and swing. The piece incorporates a simple, childlike melody in the bridge designed to evoke memories of Williams’ own childhood. I remember this piece being a set highlight at Birmingham and the recorded version perfectly expresses the contrasting emotions of the sadness of loss with the celebration of a live well lived. The attractively melodic theme emerges from Downes’ melancholy solo piano introduction and subsequently provides the framework for melodic, intelligent solos from Lasserson at the bass, Downes on piano and Arcoleo on tenor. Arcoleo’s authoritative statement acts as a reminder that he is one of the best young saxophonists around. It’s been over four years since his outstanding leadership début album “Beginnings” for Edition Records. The long awaited follow up must surely be due sometime soon.
“Hermeto” is Williams’ dedication to the great Brazilian musician and composer Hermeto Pascoal who Williams first met in the 1980s. It was partly Pascoal’s influence that persuaded Williams to write his own music – “he told me I have a Brazilian heart” Williams recalls. As Williams explains the music is not an attempt to replicate Pascoal’s sound or any other type of Brazilian music, instead “it’s more of a love letter”. In any event it’s a highly melodic and very attractive tune and one that acts as the vehicle for some excellent group interplay, with Arcoleo’s tenor at its core, plus a gliding, eloquent solo from the always excellent Robson. There’s also something of a feature for the composer in the tune’s closing stages as he spars with Arcoleo’s powerful tenor.
The album closes with “Oddity” which Williams describes as being “brisk and brusque” with a “twisted twelve bar form”. “ It is indeed an odd ditty” he concludes. I remember this being played at Birmingham and primarily being a feature for the leader’s drums. A lengthy solo drum intro kicks things off here before the group latch on to the complex, knotty theme, Arcoleo again leading the way. “There is very little room to breathe before the next event in the tune, but that doesn’t seem to bother this group” comments Williams. It’s Robson who’s next in the spotlight with a slippery, boppish, fleet fingered guitar solo, this followed by Downes with a brief but feverish piano feature before Lasserson rounds off the solos on the bass. Overall it’s a high octane work out that highlights all the individuals in the band and closes the album on an energetic, uplifting note.
Drummer, composer, bandleader and educator Jeff Williams is a man of many talents and his air of quiet authority ensures that his groups, whether British or American, always deliver. “Outlier” is one of the most accessible of his recent albums but maintains the high standards we have come to expect from him. A top notch British band plays superbly throughout with Williams’ intelligent but approachable compositions giving them plenty to get their teeth into. It’s good to see Williams’ British group gaining greater exposure as a result of the release of this album by Whirlwind. The presence of Williams on the British jazz scene in his various roles has been a huge plus for the music in the UK. Long may it continue to be so.