In a career spanning four decades drummer Jeff Williams' musical associates have included Stan Getz, Lee Konitz, Dave Liebman and Lookout Farm, Joe Lovano, Paul Bley, Bill McHenry, Ethan Iverson, Tony Malaby, and many more. During the 1990's Jeff performed with his own quintet and released two CDs of original compositions: Coalescence (SteepleChase) and Jazzblues (Cathexis). Since 2007 he has been based both in New York and London. In the UK Jeff has performed with Kenny Wheeler, Norma Winstone, and has toured with McHenry, Konitz, the Phil Robson/Dave Liebman Quartet, and Martin Speake's Change of Heart (with Bobo Stenson). Jeff has also collaborated with The Hans Koller Quartet, Sextet and Big Band, Mike Gibbs Big Band, Nikki Iles, Kit Downes, Olie Brice, Alex Bonney, Alex Merritt, Barry Green and more.
" “That one was about airport security” said Jeff Williams as the band juddered to a halt. A spooky, stuttering swing had built to a frenzy, with Phil Robson’s guitar blurting zig-zagging runs in a wildly distorted synth voice whilst Williams lashed his drums. Airport Security; it all made sense. This quintet’s off-beat vibe reflect the oddities in everyday life that provide inspiration for the drummer leader’s compositions. There’s no shouting, just a quiet intensity that draws the listener in before wrongfooting with a swerve or surprise burst of energy. Williams is all colour and nudging, no spelling out the obvious. The caress of his sticks makes the kit an orchestra. On Hermeto, named for the Brazilian composer, a rattle of the cymbal doubles the rhythm of the melody whilst a tap on the tom ghosts the guitar’s accompanying stabs and Sam Lasserson’s propulsive bass figure gets a helping prod from a click on the snare. Wonky bossas, twisted calypsos, loose limbed swing; Williams’ writing, all sidelong glances at familiar forms gives this band plenty to work on. Josh Arcoleo’s tenor nods at absent from this year’s festival, Sonny Rollins, in fullness of tone and inventive routes through angular harmony. Finn Peters, switching between alto and flute, repeatedly pulled out fiery impassioned solos. Williams left the stage for ‘Lament’, a hold your breath, haunting hymn in memory of a gone too soon friend; he returned to Arcoleo taking the tune out with long notes and hoarse cries on tenor and whipped up a storm on the drums. Not so much a crescendo as a howl of anguish.
"I’ve been an admirer of drummer Jeff Williams’ playing since his 1970’s work with saxophonist Dave Liebman (particularly Liebman’s Lookout Farm group), bassist Frank Tusa and pianist Richie Beirach. These days Williams maintains homes in both New York and London and his ocean hopping lifestyle engenders that he works with musicians from both sides of the Atlantic, among them British saxophonist Martin Speake.
In recent years Williams has also emerged as a significant composer and has released two albums on Whirlwind Recordings featuring his “American Quartet” of trumpeter Duane Eubanks, alto saxophonist John O’ Gallagher and bassist John Hebert. After reviewing both albums and also covering a live performance by the quartet in Birmingham I was keen to check out Williams’ British band, a quintet featuring the twin horns of Josh Arcoleo (tenor sax) and Finn Peters (alto sax, flute) , the guitar of Phil Robson and the double bass of Sam Lasserson. This line up has also just been documented on CD, a limited edition live album entitled “Concert In The Amazon” recorded at the Amazonas Jazz festival in Manaus, Brazil in July 2013. As far as I’m aware it’s only available from Jeff at gigs or from his website.
The UK quintet’s annual appearances at The Green Note in Camden have become something of an LJF institution. I discovered this wonderfully intimate little venue at the 2012 festival and although an infrequent visitor I consider it to be one of my favourites. Williams obviously loves playing there and the tiny music room was absolutely crammed for this year’s pilgrimage. As at Xoyo the previous evening it was standing room only for all but the very earliest arrivals and once again note taking proved difficult but this hardly seemed to matter as I absorbed myself in the music with the top quality UK band propelled by Williams’ fluid and colourful but often highly dynamic drumming. His rolling, elastic grooves, grounded by Lasserson’s supple bass pulse provided the jumping off spot for fiery, impassioned horn solos by Arcoleo and Peters, these contrasting neatly with the coolly elegant guitar runs of Robson.
Williams subtly dictated proceedings from behind his kit. He’s a wonderfully versatile drummer, a colourist in the context of a piano trio, a more dynamic and forceful presence when leading a more blowing orientated band such as this. His accents and promptings acted as subtle cues for the soloists who all responded magnificently to what Time Out New York memorable referred to as “Williams’ supple rhythmic flow”. Many of the tunes were announced but virtually all included solos by Robson, Arcoleo and Peters, the latter sometimes switching to flute to provide welcome additional colour and variation.
The first set included “She Can’t Be Spy”, one of the most memorable items from the American Quartet’s studio album “Another Time” and live recording “The Listener”. Tonight’s version included a blistering alto solo from Peters alongside features for Robson and bassist Sam Lasserson.
“Hermeto”, Williams’ tribute to the great Hermeto Pascoal was inspired by the Quintet’s visit to Brazil and this time featured Peters on flute alongside Arcoleo and Robson.
A very good first set was topped by the second. The quintet hit the ground running with a ferocious piece that featured the squalling saxes of Arcoleo and Peters both individually and collectively alongside Robson’s heavily distorted guitar, the whole lashed on by Williams’ furious drumming. “That was about airport security”, remarked Williams laconically as the sound of the last cymbal crash died away. As a man who probably has to put up with such nonsenses more frequently than most you could appreciate the anger and frustration expressed in the music.
The following “Meeting A Stranger” adopted a gentler approach with Peters excelling on flute but energy levels were restored with a rousing blues that included powerful solos from Peters on alto, Arcoleo on tenor and Robson on guitar.
The next piece was unannounced but was ushered in by Williams’ imaginative and colourful hand drumming, this leading to a beguiling blend of flute and tenor presaging solos from peters, Robson and Lasserson.
However the very best was left until last. Williams left the stage as the quartet of Arcoleo, Peters, Robson and Lasserson began “Lament”, a heartfelt and often beautiful dedication to one of Williams’ former drum students who went through unimaginably dark times before his tragic and premature death in a traffic accident. In the hands of the quartet the piece became a bitter sweet threnody, exquisite beauty inspired by the most tragic of circumstances. When Arcoleo (who had so impressed the previous day with Narcissus) began to solo, his tenor sax a cry of hurt, Williams slipped back on stage and commenced drumming in dramatic and dynamic fashion as the two reeds squalled angrily. Williams cymbals crashed and sizzled, his playing a manifestation of the hurt and frustration he felt about the needless loss of a life.
After this very personal slice of catharsis there was to be no encore but nobody present could complain about the quintet’s lack of commitment. This had been an excellent show, occasionally poignant but more often highly exciting with some exceptional playing all round. However it was Williams intelligent writing and perceptive prompting from behind the kit that set the tone for the performance.
Speaking to Williams afterwards he explained that he sees the UK group as different but equal to the American one and views both bands as coming from the same pool of talent. I also got to talk to Phil Robson and to vocalist Christine Tobin and pianist Ivo Neame who were present in an audience that also included Martin Speake.
Williams be touring the UK in 2014 as part of a trio led by Speake that will also feature guitarist Mike Outram. I’ll be covering their date at Shrewsbury on January 11th. The full itinerary can be found on Jeff’s website.
So, another memorable night at the Green Note and another excellent live performance from Jeff Williams. I shall be seeing Jeff again soon enough and hope to return to the Green Note during next year’s LJF."
The Listener is a logical extension of its two-years-older studio sibling, but it's not the same; these four men have extended the boundaries of their own work and strengthened the connective tissue that binds them. Williams' work with this quartet is special and deserves continued exploration." -All About Jazz
"The Listener's cutting-edge expertise and unwavering emphasis on improvisation makes this thoroughly contemporary music...It's a set of hot-and-cool Ornette Colemanesque themes, hip postbop and slow-burn reflections performed, on this live recording, by Williams' New York quartet." 4 Stars, The Guardian
"The Listener is not merely a throwback to Coleman in the way that the Black Crowes is to the Faces and Rolling Stones; rather it is the acknowledgement and development of an idea after the white-heat of its creation has cooled...Exceptional sonics and creative comaraderie." All About Jazz
"Music that seethes with intelligence, creativity and zest. This is a glorious record, varied, full of subtleties and surprises. Remember those days when you were in a record shop and your heard a track that was a must-buy and you couldn't rest until you had the CD. The Listener is like that." Jazz Views
"The Listener is filled with long stretches of rewarding moments, from the interplay of a snappy rhythm to heartfelt ballads. Jeff Williams supplies the majority of the tunes and the heartbeat that makes this program shine." Step Tempest
"The Listener is an exhilarating live set lead by drummer Jeff Williams. The tunes, most of which are penned by Williams, lend themselves to the sparse instrumentation of drums, bass, trumpet and saxophone, with tight, jagged themes and buoyant rhythms; a harmonic middle is not at all missed." The Jazz Word
"The composing is excellent, working piece by piece to build the record into something special. It's formal in terms of band discipline and yet somehow informal as the style is, if you like, a satire on society, an outsider's music." 4 Stars Marlbank
"Recorded live at London's Vortex Jazz Club, and the electricity from a live performance comes through loud and clear. Top-shelf jazz." Emusic
"The Listener features a piano-less quartet full of spiky lyricism and front-line duels." 4 Stars The Financial Times
"The drummer has taken his time develping what has become a distinctively independent and personal muse, but it's been worth the wait." 4 Stars The Guardian (live review)
"Veteran drummer Jeff Williams further cements his reputation as a serious and substantial player on his second WWR release The Listener." Jazz UK
"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." London Jazz News
"Jeff Williams sensitive cymbals and light-touch pulse reflect four decades of drumming with the high and mightly; on this live recording from London's Vortex he takes on the tricky territory of a piano-less quartet whose original thematic material stands mid-way between Ornette Coleman's boppier lines and the lyrical side of Don Cherry. He gets the balance between bustle and control just right. His skitter of brushes and double-time swing on Fez is an understated highlight." Jazzwise magazine
"Four disciplined players at the height of their abilities who really delve excitingly into the freer end of the spectrum while not straying far from a very tight harmonious feel." The Jazz Breakfast
"This is an excellent band and the musicianship is impeccable throughout." 4 Stars The Jazz Mann
"Superb...fiery brand of free bop-edged jazz." Time Out London
Recommended New Release for June 2013 Drummer Magazine
Jeff will be on tour in the fall and winter of 2013/14
with Martin Speake and Mike Outram in support of their new CD
Always A First Time (Pumpkin) See Jeff's performance schedule below for dates.
Listen to sample tracks from Jeff's CD Another Time
****Best CDs of 2012 -Downbeat
"Jeff Williams has honed a sound that seamlessly blends a sinewy, propulsive rhythmic sense with a masterful appreciation of space and atmosphere. On Another Time, Williams leads a remarkable group through a series of original compositions that are prefect vehicles for the veteran drummer's singular approach, as well as the quartet's consistently inspired improvisations." --Matthew Miller The New York City Jazz Record
**** "...The ease of movement between ambiguously floating rhythms and snappy polyrhythmic swing is seductive...these elegantly intricate deliberations make for absorbing contemporary jazz." --John Fordham The Guardian