REVIEW: The Jeff Williams/Clark Tracey Project at Birmingham Conservatoire

Olivia Murphy, Tom Harris (obscured), Jack Kinsella (partially obscured), Xhosa Cole, James Owston and Jeff Williams
Photo credit: Samantha Wright
The Jeff Williams/Clark Tracey Project
(Arena Foyer, Birmingham Conservatoire, 9th February 2017. Review by Tony Dudley-Evans)

It is sometimes said that drummers do not make good band leaders. I have always had severe doubts about this theory and give as evidence the excellent bands led by Bobby Previte, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Tony Williams, Sylvain Darrifourcq and many others.

This concert featured two great drummers who also lead strong groups of their own: Clark Tracey has long been a British equivalent of Art Blakey in the sense that he has led groups that have brought into prominence young players that have gone on to develop their own careers; Jeff Williams leads two groups, one of New York musicians and one of London based musicians, and his drumming seems to be the link between earlier styles of the 1960s and the more contemporary styles.

Both Tracey and Williams work as drum tutors and group leaders on the jazz course at Birmingham Conservatoire, and this concert featured the groups of First and Second Year students with whom they have been working.

Overall this was an excellent concert with the maturity and confidence of the students very apparent.  This provided clear evidence that the jazz course policy of having experienced professional jazz players actually playing with as well as mentoring the students really pays off.

Clark Tracey's group, which he calls Mission Impossible, was first up with an up-tempo number entitled C.U.C.B. dedicated to the memory of trumpeter Clifford Brown. Gareth Howell, resplendent in his pink shirt, took the solo honours paying suitable homage to the great trumpeter of the 1950s.  The group then moved into a Ballad Medley; in this, the extended piano solo by Billy Penny was beautifully judged. There was also impressive playing from tenor saxophonist Craig Nisbet who has a very interesting approach that seems to draw on earlier styles and sounds from Coleman Hawkins through to Stan Getz. The final number, Joshua written by Victor Feldman, featured a strong solo from bass player Shivraj Singh.

It was all driven along  forcefully by Clark on drums, clearly enjoying his role as leader and mentor.  He paid tribute to the group, remarking that he had had "a very enjoyable time kicking their asses".

Jeff Williams' group was a sextet and they focussed on five tunes taken from Wayne Shorter's Et Cetera album, recorded in the 1960s but not released till the 1980s. They played the material straight through and this gave the group a more integrated feel than Clark's Mission Impossible.

This was further strengthened by the excellence of the frontline of two saxophonists, Olivia Murphy and Xhosa Cole, both of whom took fine solos. There were excellent solos all round from Tom Harris on piano, Jack Kinsella on guitar and James Owston on double bass. The choice of material by Wayne Shorter from his Blue Note period located the music in that era when jazz was moving on from hard bop into a free-er approach. This is the territory where Jeff Williams belongs and his drumming really brought out the talents of these very promising young musicians.


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