CD Review: Jeff Williams - The Listener



Jeff Williams - The Listener
(Whirlwind Recordings – WR4633. CD Review by Alison Bentley)


'Listening intently tells me what to play,' drummer Jeff Williams once said, but '...thinking about what to play...will put me outside the music.' There's an unselfconscious openness in this superb album, recorded live with his US Quartet at London's Vortex in 2012- Williams is now mainly resident in the UK.

Beer and Water is trumpeter Duane Eubanks' (brother of Robin and Kevin) composition. This, and Williams' She Can't Be a Spy, sound as if they’re in a direct line from Joe Lovano's 1994 live recording ‘Quartets’, with Tom Harrell, Anthony Cox and Billy Hart- also significantly without a chord instrument. Williams even played on that band’s 90s European tours. Eubanks takes his inspiration from big bands, and his harmonies for sax and trumpet, here and in the short Slew-Footed, have a hard-bop edge. The lack of explicit chords makes everything sound excitingly angular, as the ear fills in the harmonies implied between the horns and dissonant bass lines.The drums are beautifully-recorded throughout, and Williams fills out the sound with rich textures that recall Paul Motian, shifting from swing to Latin, on the edge of skittering into freeform. Bassist John Hébert creates a strong foundation, allowing Williams to play freely, and Hébert solos with striking crooked shapes against the woody buzzing of the open strings.

Another musical line comes from Ornette Coleman (Shape of Things to Come). Williams' Borderline has the joyfulness of an Ornette tune, with overtones of calypso and an anarchic brightness. Eubanks sounds like Don Cherry, a little grit in his tone, powerful and ringing, but gentle like a fluegel in the low register, sometimes just digging in on one note. Hébert's Fez draws on Middle Eastern scales, a driving bass rhythm over ricocheting cymbals and thundering rolls. John O'Gallagher's alto opens in zigzag Steve Coleman-esque patterns, then plays fiery blasts with a Lee Konitz-like cool tone, articulating every note, even at high speed.

Hébert began musical life as a guitarist, and almost plucks the bass strings to elaborate the harmony behind the elegiac horn theme of Wiliams' Lament. The trumpet is especially touching, with its primal bluesy cries. In Dedicated to You, the other ballad and only standard, Eubanks plays with a singing vibrato like Wynton Marsalis. O'Gallagher's tone calls to mind Art Pepper in its sweetness, but with the more modern harmonies of someone like Dick Oatts. Both O'Gallagher and Hébert have recently recorded jazz versions of modern Classical composers' work (Hébert: Enescu; O'Gallagher: Webern) and it's fascinating to hear some of those influences filtering into their playing.

Scrunge/Search Me (Williams) has an infectious funky groove in 7, the fitful horn lines playfully bombarding the ostinato bass lines. O'Gallagher's solo lets rip, Kenny Garrett-like, wild, yet distinctively himself. One of the album’s finest moments is where everyone improvises together in a maelstrom, Williams' extraordinary drumming responding to everyone in dazzling detail. The crowd roars their approval.

Williams is at the height of his powers after 40 years of working with so many jazz greats, from Stan Getz to Dave Liebman. This album takes the tradition onwards, with gifted musicians whose cutting edge solos show how intently they’re listening to each other. And now we're listening too.

Jeff Williams is at the Vortex with his London band on Tuesday 4th June:

Jeff Williams Quintet featuring Finn Peters – alto saxophone / flute, Josh Arcoleo – tenor saxophone, Kit Downes – piano & Sam Lasserson – bass

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