Jeff Williams - Bloom

Label: Whirlwind Recordings, 2019

Personnel - Carmen Staaf: piano; Michael Formanek: bass; Jeff Williams: drums.

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The empathic, racehorse-tempo swing displayed on “Scattershot”, the improvised opening track on Jeff Willaims’ new trio effort Bloom, reveals the unobtrusive cooperation between the drummer, the defiant bassist Michael Formanek, an old acquaintance, and the imaginative pianist Carmen Staaf. Free of restrictions, the latter channels bop-inflected melodies, rhythmic figures, and grooving chords into the consistent pulsating flow that stems from the bass-drums underpinning. Her vivacious expressions caught the ears of the drummer when, early last year, she joined Dan Blake & The Digging for a gig at Smalls in New York.

Williams wrote five of the album’s ten tracks, including “Scrunge/Search Me”, which reemerges as a highlight here despite having been featured in the 2013 album The Listener. The piece thrives with Staaf’s Monk-ish impressions over a lilting 7/8 groove before transitioning to a carefree peregrination, which, for some moments, seems ambivalent in regard to which direction to take. Also retrieved from the aforementioned album and dialoguing with a freer posture, “She Can’t Be a Spy” deserves attention as melodies and rhythms walk a delicate tightrope of paradoxes. This last piece also appeared on the album Another Time, whose title cut is reinterpreted here with average results. With that said, keep in mind that the trio approached this material as if it’s never been played before.

Formanek and Staaf contribute two and three compositions, respectively. The bassist brings his uncompromising lyricism and rubato drive to the mesmeric “Ballad of the Weak” as well as a focused swinging drive to “A Word Edgewise”, while Staaf, effortlessly creative in terms of rhythmic figures, relates to Ahmad Jamal's bluesy diction on pieces such as “Short Tune” and “New York Landing”. On the contrary, her featherweight “Chant” blossoms with Yusef Lateef’s spiritual touch, relying on bowed bass, cymbal radiance, and poised melodic meditation to exude peace and hope.

Also evincing a strong spiritual aura is Buster Williams’ “Air Dancing”, a medium-tempo waltz delineated to provide a revitalizing quietening.

With Bloom, Williams doesn’t match the uplifting narratives of his previous CD, Lifelike. However, and even not impressing me much, the album is brightened by balanced moments and communicative openness.

Grade  B-

Grade B-

Favorite Tracks:
04 - Scrunge/Search Me ► 07 - She Can’t Be a Spy ► 08 - Air Dancing


Jeff Williams - Lifelike

Label: Whirlwind Recordings, 2018

Personnel – John O’Gallagher: alto saxophone; Josh Arcoleo: tenor saxophone; Gonçalo Marques: trumpet; Kit Downes: piano; Sam Lasserson: bass; Jeff Williams: drums.

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Experienced American drummer Jeff Williams, who worked with Dave Liebman, Lee Konitz, Stan Getz, and Ted Curson, sports a deft rhythmic control that can make a simple tune sound brighter and invigorating. His new album, Lifelike, a feverish sextet session recorded live at Vortex Jazz Club in London, is a remarkable follow-up to Outlier (Whirlwind Records, 2016) and features a powerful frontline with saxophonists John O’Gallagher (alto) and Josh Arcoleo (tenor) plus guest Portuguese trumpeter Gonçalo Marques, and a skilled rhythm section composed of pianist Kit Downes, bassist Sam Lasserson, and himself on the drum set. Enlighten with freedom, the artists approach the tunes on their own terms within well-defined structures and song forms, proving that, in their case, merging post-bop and avant-garde jazz feels as natural breathing.

Their fresh story starts with the stimulating “Under The Radar”, a six-bar blues with a curious percussive treatment. Autonomous bass lines join the African pulse, bringing the necessary amount of groove while making a comfortable bed for the horn kicks and smooth piano maneuvers. The mood, evocative of the Andrew Hill quintet, stimulates Marques for a wonderful improvisation, which starts reflectively motivic and ends tempestuous. Downes responds to the trumpeter's attacks with discernment before embarking himself on a personal journey of creativity.

Also rhythmically rich and displaying a go-ahead melodic statement, “The Interloper” emanates the same type of energy, but more in the line of Old And New Dreams’ “Dewey’s Tune”. While Arcoleo opens the soloing section with a rollicking phrase that brings “Round Midnight” to mind, Williams, operating the drumsticks with precision, carefully tailors his actions to hold with O’Gallagher’s busy squalling alto, whose fluidity is disarming.

A bass pedal point locks the groove on the initially static “Dream Visitor”. After fire-breathing improvisations from trumpet, tenor and alto, the mood changes to colorful through a funky bass-drums flow that is a perfect vehicle for the horn interplay. 

Lament” is a beautiful composition from the 90's that cools down the impetuosity of the previous tunes in its earliest section. Introduced by a sensitive bass solo, charmingly brushed drums, and lyric pianism, the tune falls into a modal jazz that thrives with the dynamic vitality of the reedists. They invite us to a fervent finale that galvanizes the spirit and liberates. 

Borderline” displays a nearly three-minute tenor-over-drums flare-up in a fierce tonal exploration of sound and language. The elated melody has a strong African flavor, and the improvisations belong to Lasserson and Downes.

Following Marques’ “Cançao do Amolador”, a poetic declamation in the style of saxophonist Joe Farrell, the session ends with freebop license through “Double Life”, a swinging altercation fueled by racy phrases and exhilarating rhythmic impressions.

Tart yet never coarse, Lifelike is meant to be one of the hippest avant-garde jazz records of 2018; a coherent whole of tension-release, vitality, and drive. 

        Grade  A

        Grade A

Favorite Tunes: 
01 - Under the Radar ► 03 - Dream Visitor ►04 – Lament