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Jeff Williams

Road Tales - Live At London Jazz Festival

by Ian Mann

January 19, 2021


There’s a real chemistry between the group members and the performance is delivered with real intensity and dynamism and a genuine spirit of musical adventure.

Jeff Williams

“Road Tales – Live at London Jazz Festival”

(Whirlwind Recordings WR4768)

Jeff Williams – drums, John O’ Gallagher – alto saxophone, Josh Arcoleo – tenor saxophone,
Sam Lasserson – double bass

This latest Whirlwind release from the American born, London based drummer / composer Jeff Williams is a live recording documented at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Dean Street, Soho during the 2018 EFG London Jazz Festival.

Williams has enjoyed a long and successful relationship with Whirlwind Recordings and this live album represents his fifth release for the label. The drummer made his Whirlwind début in 2011 with the studio set “Another Time”, an excellent recording made with his ‘American’ quartet featuring John O’Gallagher on alto sax, Duane Eubanks on trumpet and John Hebert on double bass. This line up was to tour the UK in the spring of 2012 and I was able to catch up with them at an enjoyable, but sparsely attended, gig at The Cross public house in Moseley, Birmingham.
Review here;

That same line up appears on 2013’s “The Listener” (Whirlwind Recordings), a live album documented at The Vortex in Dalston, London during the course of that 2012 tour.

Williams first came to the UK in 2003 following his marriage to the American author and social commentator 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.
During the Covid pandemic he remains locked down in London.

As a result of his ocean hopping existence Williams has led both ‘British’ and ‘American’ bands, but in recent years there has been an increasing degree of cross fertilisation between them, in part the result of O’Gallagher’s move to the UK to both study and teach at Birmingham Conservatoire.

Williams’ 2016 Whirlwind release, “Outlier”, featured an all British group comprised of Josh Arcoleo (tenor sax), Sam Lasserson (double bass),  Phil Robson (guitar) and Kit Downes (piano).
Review here;
Previous editions of the UK band have also included alto saxophonist Finn Peters.

The live recording “Lifelike” (Whirlwind),  documented at The Vortex, featured a 2017 performance with the ‘British’ band (Arcoleo, Lasserson and Downes, plus O’Gallagher) augmented by the Portuguese trumpeter and composer Goncalo Marquez. The addition of Marquez brought a fresh instrumental voice to the band, one not heard since Eubanks’ involvement several years previously.

2019’s “Bloom” (Whirlwind) saw a change of direction with Williams appearing in a ‘piano trio’ format alongside the New York based musicians Carmen Staaf (piano) and Michael Formanek (double bass). Although released under Williams’ name this was a highly interactive and democratic trio recording with all three musicians contributing material to the repertoire.
Review here;

Here’s a potted history (sourced from previous Jazzmann reviews)  of Williams’ career prior to the ‘Whirlwind years’;

“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, followed by “Jazzblues” in 1995,  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”.

Turning at last to this latest recording, which features a programme comprised entirely of Williams originals.  The leader emphasises the fact that his quartet is a regular working band, and as such is a group that is prepared to take risks with his material. With regard to “Road Tales” he comments;
“I love to have a band that is able to take chances – It’s wonderful the way this group can develop my compositions, with their ability to take things as far as possible without going over the cliff. There aren’t many actual on-going bands in jazz any more. The fact that this is one is something I’m proud of. That’s the only way a performance of this type becomes possible.”

“Road Tales” includes material that has featured several times on previous recordings, but which is regularly rejuvenated in the crucible of live performance. Williams likes to document the work of his bands in live settings and in addition to his concert recordings for Whirlwind he has also issued a number of limited edition live recordings on his own Willful music imprint. These include 2013’s “Concert In The Amazon”, recorded with Arcoleo, Peters, Robson and Lasserson and 2014’s “Valence”, a trio set featuring Lasserson and O’Gallagher.

Of the material to be heard on “Road Tales” Williams states;
“Some of these tunes go back many years, but I think what’s special here is the way that band works together, adding things that aren’t on the paper. So many things were completely unplanned - it’s pure interaction, the sound of a band taking risks together.”

The lengthy opener “New And Old” is dedicated to Williams’ late father and is introduced by the composer at the drums. Williams originally wrote the tune at the piano and deliberately keeps things simple and open, with a middle section intended to “sound like a child’s nursery rhyme”. The ‘chordless’ nature of the line up allows plenty of room for the two saxophonists to express themselves, exchanging expansive, free-wheeling solos above the consistently evolving polyrhythmic flow of Williams’ drums and the muscular anchor of Lasserson’s bass. The bassist is also featured as a soloist, his powerful and dexterous pizzicato augmented by Williams’ deft and subtle drum accompaniment as the pair engage in an absorbing rhythmic dialogue. As well as delivering powerful solo statements O’Gallagher and Arcoleo also combine effectively, their sinuous melody lines intertwining around the fluid rhythmic pulse supplied by Lasserson and Williams.

Over the years Williams has developed an adventurous and sophisticated approach to time keeping, the album title “Another Time” reflecting his flexible and very personal approach to rhythm

In an interview with Alison Bentley for London Jazz News he explained something of his vision for this quartet;
“Josh and John challenge and inspire each other. And Sam Lasserson on bass provides a level of trust and communication between the bass and drums that is really essential for us to be able to go places musically. I know he’s always got my back and so I’m free to play whatever I want.  I figure the drums as being similar to a piano in the sense that you’ve got the full range from the bass drum to the cymbals and everything in between. I basically feel like a horn player”.

“The Interloper” is a piece that has been in the Williams repertoire for some time, which is maybe quite appropriate for a tune inspired by the kind of party guest that you can’t get rid of. Musically the piece owes something to the style of Thelonious Monk, with its jagged, quirky rhythms and equally idiosyncratic melodies. Williams’ drums are prominent throughout and almost seem to lead the group at times. O’Gallagher’s solo is hard edged and incisive, Arcoleo’s more good natured, but no less intense, as a Monk-like sense of humour begins to inform the proceedings.

A sense of fun also informs “Borderline”, which Williams likens to “a Mexican Hat Dance”. The horns work in tandem on the playful theme, augmented by the rhythmic quirkiness of the bass and drum parts. Arcoleo and O’Gallagher then diverge to deliver powerful solo statements, riding the roiling rhythms surging beneath. Lasserson is then left to pluck and strum alone as the rest of the group drop out. He and Williams first played together in the Generations quartet, led by saxophonist Martin Speake, and have since evolved into a world class rhythmic partnership.

“Oddity” is a mutated twelve bar blues and is introduced by an extended feature from Williams at the drum kit, a combination of skilful construction and nascent power. The other musicians take their cue from Williams as O’Gallagher and Arcoleo stretch out with typically barnstorming solos. From previously live shows (most recently at The Hive in Shrewsbury in January 2018) I recall O’Gallagher delivering his hard hitting solos hunched in a pugilistic crouch. I can visualise him here doing exactly that. On a piece that is also something of a feature for the leader Williams returns for a second solo drum salvo.

Delivered contiguously, and collectively clocking in at around the twelve minute mark, Williams has described the combination of “Under The Radar”, “Scrunge” and “Search Me” as “The Airport Security Suite”. During his previous life as a ‘frequent flyer’ Williams must have seen more than enough of airport security officials.
“Under The Radar” is a six bar blues ushered in by Lasserson’s bass and the sound of vocalised saxophone multiphonics. There’s an appropriately unsettling, almost sinister, feel about the music, which gradually gathers momentum above Lasserson’s loping bass motif and Williams’ fluid, loose limbed drumming. O’Gallagher probes searchingly on alto before the music segues into the edgy 7/4 funk of “Scrunge”, with Arcoleo now taking over as the featured soloist. A smattering of audience applause allied to a change of time signature marks the transition into “Search Me”, which is jagged and punchy, with O’Gallagher’s squalling alto riding the tide of Williams’ drums. There’s more than a hint of Ornette Coleman’s style in the writing and playing here.

There’s barely a pause for breath as the quartet launch into “She Can’t Be A Spy”, a tune dating back to the “Another Time “album, and one in which Williams and his band continue to find fresh possibilities. Arcoleo is the first soloist here, even squeezing a Wayne Shorter quote into his feature. Lasserson follows him with an extended passage of virtuoso unaccompanied double bass.  “Sam is quite a unique player - to me he’s on a very high level as a musician - he’s so inventive and his ability to take a composition and find so many ways to play it is incredible”, remarks Williams.

The album concludes with “Double Life”, the title a reference both to Williams’ ocean hopping lifestyle and the variety of time signatures deployed within the framework of the composition. An extended passage of colourful, polyrhythmic solo drumming introduces the piece, before the horns combine to state the theme. Arcoleo and O’Gallagher subsequently strike out alone, soloing powerfully and buoyed by the propulsive, but constantly mutating rhythms laid down by Lasserson and Williams. This piece features the quartet at its flexible, free-wheeling best and incorporates a dynamic drum feature for the leader before the close.

Given the availability of several of these pieces elsewhere one might be excused for asking whether this latest release is strictly necessary. However it’s timing is particularly fortuitous. “Road Tales” first appeared in November 2020 in the middle of a total UK lockdown,  and as I write this review in January 2021 we still remain thoroughly entrenched.

So a top quality live album is just what we need at the moment. It’s great to hear real audience applause and to thrill to a band of hugely talented and highly interactive musicians feeding off the energy of the crowd. There’s a real chemistry between the group members and the performance is delivered with real intensity and dynamism and a genuine spirit of musical adventure. Williams and his band pull no punches and the music is delivered with passion, energy, vibrancy and a steely eyed sense of purpose.

The Williams quartet is particularly adept at striking just the right balance between composition and improvisation and achieving that magical blend of looseness and togetherness that only comes with a regular working band.  This, allied to the much missed frisson of a live performance makes this a timely and important album.

As Williams told Alison Bentley;
“My previous albums have contained some of the same material as ‘Road Tales’, and for me an actual band can do so much more than the sum of its parts. Look at Miles Davis playing essentially the same tunes in the 50s with that great quintet, and then in the 60s with the second band. The original repertoire was being played and it was completely different. I remember seeing them in ‘66 and it was incredible. That’s the idea of this record. Rather than changing all the time, I think this recording shows what longevity can do for the music, and I hope it comes across”.

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