by Ian Mann
January 15, 2018
This was ‘state of the art’ contemporary jazz delivered by a highly accomplished Anglo-American band.
Photograph of Josh Arcoleo, Jeff Williams and John O’Gallagher by Arwyn Davies.
Jeff Williams Quintet, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 13/01/2018.
Jeff Williams (drums, composer), John O’ Gallagher (alto sax), Josh Arcoleo (tenor sax), Kit Downes (piano), Sam Lasserson (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 1970s albums by groups led variously by saxophonist Dave Liebman, pianist Richie Beirach and bassist Frank Tusa.
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).
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 fortunate 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 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.
Tonight’s performance at The Hive, an event promoted by Shrewsbury Jazz Network represented a particularly enticing prospect as it included musicians from both Williams’ New York and British bands with the American John O’Gallagher (alto sax) joining the UK musicians Josh Arcoleo (tenor sax), Kit Downes (piano) and Sam Lasserson (double bass). O’Gallagher is currently based in Birmingham while guitarist Phil Robson has moved to New York, the pair effectively changing places within the Williams group. “Not a bad swap” as the drummer/leader has observed.
The current Anglo-American quintet has been together for over a year and has performed together on a regular basis. In June 2017 the band’s performance at The Vortex was documented for release on the forthcoming live album “Lifelike” which will appear on the Whirlwind Recordings label and will hit the shelves on 20th April 2018. On this occasion the group was expanded to a sextet with the addition of a guest musician, the Portuguese trumpeter and composer Goncalo Marquez. I intend to take a look at this recording nearer to the release date.
Williams’ all star quintet drew a capacity crowd to The Hive and it was good to attend a January event at the venue without any serious weather concerns, with neither floods nor snow presenting anything to worry about. It was however a little chilly inside the venue due to a problem with the heating system, but the size of the audience plus the energy created by the playing of the five highly talented musicians ensured that this was quickly forgotten about. Williams and his colleagues ensured that things soon warmed up nicely.
Williams informed us that this was the quintet’s first gig since the recording of the live album but there were no signs of any ring rustiness as the band launched into the title track of their most recent studio release “Outlier”. Introduced by Lasserson’s melodic bass motif the piece featured the distinctive blending of the horns of O’Gallagher and Arcoleo with Downes adopting a convincing acoustic piano sound at his electric keyboard. As the two saxes intertwined a hint of wilful dissonance entered the proceedings, the kind of avant garde flourish that characterises Williams’ sometimes challenging writing. The drummer’s music is distinguished by complex written passages – all five members of the group were sight reading - but with plenty of freedom allowed for the individual musicians to express themselves. The quintet’s sound strikes a good balance between the written and the improvised, structure and freedom. This first piece was distinguished by the overall ensemble sound and included a brief trio section as the horns temporarily dropped out and a sudden ending that caught most of the audience on the hop.
The individual voices of the band began to find expression on “The Interloper”, another tune from the “Outlier” album. Vaguely reminiscent of the music of both Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk the opening horn fanfares gave way to the first genuine solo of the evening, this honour being awarded to bassist Lasserson with a feature that evolved into an absorbing dialogue with the leader’s drums. O’Gallagher then took over on incisive alto, his solo delivered from a pugilistic crouching position and becoming increasingly garrulous as it progressed. A brief passage of unaccompanied drumming from Williams then led to a final theme statement that saw the twin saxes combining powerfully.
The pace slowed with “Meeting A Stranger”, a piece which first appeared on Williams’ album 1995 “JazzBlues” but has also been in the repertoire of his ‘British Quintet’ for some time and subsequently re-appeared on “Outlier”. A gentle trio introduction with Williams deploying brushes led to a warm toned theme statement from Arcoleo on tenor , with the torch subsequently being passed to O’Gallagher on alto. The first real solo came from Downes at the piano, his keyboard lyricism followed by a gently probing excursion from Arcoleo on tenor.
Also from the “JazzBlues” album came “Borderline” which raised the energy levels again with its busy, stuttering melodic phrases and Latin-esque flourishes. Introduced by a burst of solo drumming from Williams the piece included a powerful alto solo from O’Gallagher, his staccato phrases at one juncture accompanied only by the sounds of Lasserson’s bass. The addition of piano and drums ensured that Arcoloeo’s tenor solo was more conventional in comparison and he was followed by Downes at the piano.
An excellent first set concluded with “Skulduggery”, again ushered in by Williams at the drums, his intro presaging an arresting theme statement from the unison horns of Arcoleo and O’Gallagher. The first individual feature was from Downes, who accompanied his expansive solo with a bout of Keith Jarrett-like vocalising. An unaccompanied passage of double bass from Lasserson demonstrated his twin virtues of muscularity and great dexterity. Williams clearly thinks highly of Lasserson and first worked with the bassist in saxophonist Martin Speake’s Generations group. More recently Williams and Lasserson teamed up with O’Gallagher to release the live trio recording “Valence”, which appeared on the drummer’s own Willful Music imprint in 2014. This recording also included a version of this tune, which first appeared on Williams’ 1991 solo début “Coalescence”. Tonight the piece resolved itself with a restatement of the theme by the two horns as Williams introduced his fellow band members with a spoken ‘outro’.
There was to be no let up in intensity in the second set which opened with a bristling new arrangement of the Williams tune “Dream Visitor”, driven along by the leader’s whip smart drumming. Seated bolt upright at his kit and with a steely glint in his eye Williams played with grace, power and accuracy throughout the evening, setting the benchmark for his colleagues to follow. O’Gallagher responded with a powerful solo that again embraced an avant garde dissonance. Downes followed at the piano, as resourceful as ever, and the piece also included features for both Lasserson and Williams as well as some passages featuring the dense intertwining of the two horns.
The two saxes also combined effectively on the quirky “She Can’t Be A Spy”, a tune from Williams’ 2012 album “Another Time”. Inspired by a news story about Russian spies infiltrating American society the piece also offered further opportunities for Downes and O’Gallagher to stretch out with typically adventurous and probing solos.
Written following the sad and all too early death of one of his drum students “Lament” is one of Williams’ most personal pieces. Introduced by a duet between O’Gallagher’s keening alto and Lasserson’s solemn, resonant bass the piece expressed both sorrow and anger, the anger at a premature and unnecessary death. This was a smouldering, slow burner of a piece that grew in intensity and included a stunning passage of solo double bass from the hugely impressive Lasserson. The piece ultimately concluded in a more upbeat manner with a soaring tenor solo from Arcoleo that was almost anthemic in nature, one sensed that the piece had now transformed into the celebration of a life. I recall hearing an equally effective and moving rendition of this tune by the quintet (with Robson rather than O’Gallagher) at that Green Note performance back in 2013.
Bass and piano introduced “Double Life”, subsequently combining with the leader’s drums to produce a buoyant groove that provided the springboard for a lively theme statement from the horns and subsequent solos from Downes, O’Gallagher and Williams himself.
A passage of unaccompanied hand drumming introduced “Oddity” with the addition of bass and piano providing the impetus for a double sax theme statement and subsequent solo from Arcoleo, the tenor man’s subtle probing encouraged by the prompting of the leader’s drum patterns. Downes was given the chance to stretch out at the piano during a lengthy trio episode before the two horns returned to restate the theme.
Such is the glamour of the jazz life that O’Gallagher had to make an early departure to catch the last train back to Birmingham. Thus we were to enjoy a second bout of “Skulduggery”, the theme of which was incorporated into closing number “The Hunt”. Again this was introduced by Williams at the drums who instigated a rapid bass and drum groove that provided the jumping off point for a final alto salvo from O’Gallagher, a nimble and inventive piano solo from Downes and further features for Arcoleo on tenor and Lasserson at the bass. After a rapid fire restatement of the “Skulduggery” theme O’Gallagher packed away his alto and prepared to scurry off to the station as Williams delivered a second spoken ‘outro’. “Josh Arcoleo can play enough saxophone for two” declared Williams and the tenor man responded with an intense and fiery solo, following hot on the heels of a Williams drum feature.
The remaining quartet remained on stage to deliver a deserved encore with “The Messenger”, a tune dedicated to the memory of the great Art Blakey with Arcoleo again stepping up to the plate with a marathon tenor solo that rivalled Donny McCaslin for stamina and intensity. Arcoleo’s burly sound on the instrument also evoked an audience comparison with the playing of former Monk saxophonist Charlie Rouse. Downes also featured as a soloist and Williams enjoyed a series of fiery, Blakey-esque drum breaks as he traded phrases with Arcoleo and Downes.
This was ‘state of the art’ contemporary jazz delivered by a highly accomplished Anglo-American band who received an excellent reception from the Shrewsbury audience for their intense, but largely accessible, music. There were a few attendees who found the music a little challenging and might have enjoyed the sweetener of a standard or two but overall the reaction was hugely positive.
This was adventurous, contemporary jazz of the highest order and SJN are to be congratulated on bringing musicians of this calibre to Shrewsbury.
My thanks to Jeff Williams and Kit Downes for speaking with me afterwards and it was also good to meet publicist and booking agent Danielle White for the first time, our previous communications have all been by email or telephone – thanks to Sue Watkins of SJN for introducing us. And of course it was also good to meet up with all the other SJN regulars at the start of an exciting New Year for Shrewsbury Jazz Network. Tonight’s performance certainly got 2018 off to a great start.
Further dates on the Lifelike tour include;
3 April: Jeff Williams Lifelike album launch with Gonçalo Marquez, John O’Gallagher, Josh Arcoleo, Kit Downes, Sam Lasserson at the Vortex, London
*6 April: Jeff Williams Lifelike,The Verdict, Brighton, UK
*12 April: Jeff Williams Lifelike, East Side Jazz Club, Birmingham, UK
*26 April: Jeff Williams Lifelike, Old Town Hall Cellar, Hemel Hempstead, UK
*14 June: Jeff Williams Lifelike, Cambridge Jazz, UK
*15 June: Jeff Williams Lifelike, Harrow Arts Centre, UK
From Jeff Williams via email;
Great to see you the other night and very glad you came. Thanks so much for the detailed review. It means a great deal to me, especially since this is the first review we have received in years. Also meaningful is that you appreciate what we’re doing and have taken the trouble to cross reference the material.
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