Debbie Burke

The Beat Drives the Thing – Jeff Williams’s New CD “Lifelike” A Sonic Celebration

There’s a lot happening in “Dream Visitor,” a song from the upcoming CD called “Lifelike” by Jeff Williams. Assertive statements from trumpet, then sax, play over complex multi-rhythms from Williams on drums. Though not melodically prominent, there’s a theme that’s revisited briefly throughout the song.

A bass drags us along in the beginning of “Lament” until the sax declares its mournful mindset. Things lighten up with the piano; drums pull the rhythm up, adding air and space. The beat is driven frothy, leading the sax once more into its passionate theme. A song of many layers where the mood goes from subdued to angry and righteous.

Williams’s drums start “Under the Radar” with a palpitating heart then double-time licks heighten the tension as the horns harmonize sweetly and finally scream out. Coolly, the double (triple?)-time is repeated. The balance between instruments is keen and considerate. Through all seven original tracks, the CD proves this is an ensemble whose soloists pay their dues and pull back to let the others glimmer.

How does one become ‘self-taught’ on drums?

Self-taught isn’t an entirely accurate way of putting it, in that there are all sorts of ways of picking up information. For example, although not a drummer himself, my dad showed me a basic pattern for playing brushes when I was seven. Having discovered Ahmad Jamal’s trio records with Israel Crosby and Vernel Fournier among my parents’ music collection, I spent the next several years playing along with them with brushes on a cardboard box. So yes, I was learning the rhythm and at least the physicality of it with my hands, and I was also becoming familiar with Ahmad’s treatment of standard tunes and how a great rhythm section plays together as one.

When I was eight I was given a snare drum with the understanding that I would take lessons from a local drummer. I believe there were three or four lessons, consisting mainly of learning how to read notes, which at the time didn’t interest me at all. I wanted to learn more about how to play. Out of frustration, one day during practice I rammed a stick right through the head. It was a calf head and it was as if I had killed the drum. It went in a closet and I it returned to my cardboard box.

It should be noted that during this time my mother was singing jazz semi-professionally around northern Ohio. When I was nine (at the beginning of 1960), my parents separated and my mother moved to New York to pursue her singing career. I would stay with her there during the summer and school holidays. Very quickly she was embraced by the jazz community and I was able to meet and hear most of the jazz masters alive during the period.

Musicians accompanying her would rehearse in our home and I would occasionally go to one of her gigs. My former teacher would sometimes be playing but I didn’t think he was very good. One day pianist Frank Williams (no relation) was going over some music with my mom and she told him he should hear me play. From playing along with recordings for so long, I was able to learn every nuance of a particular track. So this was a kind of audition, as I performed for Frank one of my practiced selections. He was impressed and hired me on the spot, replacing my former teacher and I worked every weekend at clubs in the area from the time I was fourteen until high school graduation. This was about swinging all night, playing standards, nothing fancy.

Watching and listening to many of the great drummers definitely taught me everything about how to play the instrument. It was then up to me to apply what I had learned on my own. The beauty of drumming is something you can see as well as hear.

Although I went to Berklee College of Music after high school with the express purpose of studying with the great Alan Dawson, this proved to be a disappointment. Alan was overtaxed and the lessons were short and quite abrupt. Again, I was starting from the beginning while wanting to show him what I already could do.

After playing professionally in New York for nearly a decade, I finally studied privately with Alan and was able to fill in some gaps in my playing. I am forever grateful to him for that. 

What attracted you to percussion?

I wouldn’t say the American drum set, as Jo Jones called it, is the same as percussion. I think of it as being distinct. My first exposure came from seeing a drummer on a polka variety TV show in Mansfield, Ohio when I was three years old. People were dancing, having fun and then the camera panned over to the drummer. He seemed entirely responsible for creating the palpable good feeling, plus his contraption was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. That’s one of my earliest memories, still vivid today. I was imprinted in that moment and knew that’s what I wanted to do. 

Does the drummer have the hardest challenge- in keeping time and being present but not overpowering his/her band?

Each instrument has its own challenges so I wouldn’t say that drummers have it hardest.

Your question suggests the issue of being assertive without overpowering the rest of the band. When Elvin Jones and Tony Williams upped the ante in the form of interactivity and volume, it changed the role of the drummer in jazz from accompanist to equal contributor.

As many of the older players said, this messed up a lot of drummers, myself included. Fortunately, from working with Stan Getz and Lee Konitz, I learned about dynamics.

Lee asked me if I could achieve the same intensity without the volume. That’s what I needed to learn how to do, but I couldn’t fully accomplish it until my technique was improved through my studies with Alan Dawson. Drums tend to be loud unless the player develops a high level of skill. 

As for timekeeping, everyone in the band has to have good time. It’s not up to the drummer to make up for deficiencies in that area. But the drummer needs to establish a consistent groove and a feeling that creates a comfort level for the other players, along with a confident attitude that puts everyone at ease.

The drummer has to sense what the music needs in every given moment. He or she needs to be unselfish and play for the music. As Art Blakey said, “Let the punishment fit the crime,” meaning that one must be fully present in order to know what and how to play. Miles said he liked a drummer who could “clean up”: in other words one who can smooth out inaccuracies in the other players.

So the drummer has many things to deal with simultaneously. Obviously, time is the first order of business, followed closely by sound, groove and content. 

Some of your favorite collaborations?

It’s hard to pick without leaving some out. I was blessed to begin my career in New York at 22, being hired by Stan Getz and particularly being asked by Dave Holland to join the band. I learned a great deal from both of them. It was on the-job-training and straightening by fire.

I wouldn’t call that a collaboration exactly, although I had to contribute. It wasn’t just along for the ride. After that Dave Liebman, Richie Beirach, Frank Tusa and I formed a group called Lookout Farm. That was truly a collaboration and a successful one. It was really what I wanted to do–play original music with a band of peers, record and travel the world. It was an amazing experience. There have been many other collaborations but none as concentrated and long-lasting. 

Whom would you like to play with?

I always think of Wayne Shorter first. I’m not even sure that’s true anymore. What I’ve found out is that there are musicians all over the world I don’t know about. When I meet and play with one, I often discover someone else I want to play with. For example, on my new album I decided to invite trumpeter Gonçalo Marquez to join my band for the recording, having only played with him once. So I don’t think in those terms.

Gravitation and attraction naturally seem to put me in touch with musicians with whom I can fruitfully interact. 

Who are your top influences?

So many. Anyone I have heard sounding good. Definitely Vernel at first, then Philly Joe Jones. Those two formed my concept early on.

Jo Jones (Papa) had a great impact when he stayed with us for two weeks when I was sixteen.

Then Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette were the two main drummers I was trying to emulate in the late 1960s/70s, along with Elvin Jones. Roy Haynes is in there too.

Drummers I got to know well in my youth, like Oliver Jackson, Herb Lovelle, Jackie Williams and Frank Gant were very important. Al Foster is a favorite.

At this point I’m not so much influenced as inspired by many contemporary players like Tyshawn Sorey, Bill Stewart, Marcus Gilmore, Kimberly Thompson, Donald Edwards, Chris Dave…on and on, so many. 

Name your current band members and their strengths.

John O’Gallagher (alto saxophone) is someone I have collaborated with for many years. He is unique in many ways, having developed his own musical language and distinctive sound. His arrival in the UK meant I could continue our association from the group I had in New York. He is a powerful and advanced improvisor who knows my music inside out, so it’s truly a blessing to have him in the band.

Kit Downes (piano) I met early on when I began living in London in the mid-2000s. He was finishing up at the Royal Academy of Music when we first played and I was taken with his range and musicality. He is an imaginative contributor to any musical situation, able to find just the right thing to play, and inspires those he is playing with to extend themselves, especially me.

Josh Arcoleo was also a student at the Royal Academy when we met. As I was teaching there this occasioned him to take some lessons with me. We essentially just played duo and I knew instantly I wanted him in my band. He had studied saxophone and toured with Pee Wee Ellis, which no doubt influenced his approach. Whatever it was, he didn’t sound like anyone else and already had a rare mastery that has continued to grow. I call him the power hitter of the group and he pushes me to great heights.

Sam Lasserson (bass) and I played in a number of situations prior to the formation of my group. This gave us the opportunity to really get to know each other’s playing and to establish a great rapport. Sam is one of the most inventive musicians I can think of, as well being someone who has the ability to serve the foundational role of the bass in a creative manner. I am able to play exactly as I want, knowing that he will respond accordingly, his ears being finely attuned. 

Gonçalo Marquez (trumpet) is a special guest on the album and will be in the band as he is able to join us. Living in Portugal gives us a slight challenge. Trumpet and drums are a special combination. In my New York group, Duane Eubanks is irreplaceable.

In the UK there are some great trumpet players I’ve had the pleasure of working with, like Alex Bonney in particular. When I had the opportunity to play with Gonçalo in Portugal something just hit me and I knew he would be a great addition to the UK band. He has his own sound for sure and amazing facility on the instrument, plus something else that’s hard to define. For lack of a better description, soul.

Each of these players inspire something in me that simply makes me want to play. And they work very well together so the vibe is just great. 

Where is your head when you compose?

I have always played the piano for my own enjoyment and musical edification. This eventually led to composing music for a group I started in the late 1980s.

When composing I try not to judge what is going on; rather allowing the piece to develop on its own and not attempting to define what it is. So it’s a matter of hearing where the harmony, melody and rhythm want to go.

Sometimes that’s trial and error but often it’s about not rushing to closure. In a concentrated state of mind, the next move usually occurs without effort. I’ll then write down the notes as they come up. In the past most of my compositions came from improvising at the piano and gradually finding I had a piece of music. I would then learn how to play on the form while discovering the harmonic implications. Not being a pianist really that’s a slow process, one that I don’t seem to have time for anymore. These days it’s more like automatic writing and refinement thereafter.

My head when performing is pretty still. I’ve learned not to pay attention to my thoughts while playing. The mind will continuously generate thoughts but they are best ignored in order to be fully present and engaged in the music. That’s just a practical matter. Much like driving a car, being aware of road signs and what is ahead, playing music requires all of one’s attention but not the linear type we associate with words. I am able to take in the audience, acoustics, what the musicians are playing and sense my appropriate contribution to the proceedings without an internal dialogue. It basically doesn’t matter what I think while I’m playing. That would be like trying to be in two places at once.  

What’s your favorite time signature?

For me 6/8 is a great basis. If you are able to hear and feel multiple meters at the same time so much the better.

Of course 4/4 is quite comfortable. 

What’s in your kit?

No accessories, just the standard jazz set-up of 18″ bass drum, 8″ x 12″ and 14″ x 14″ toms, snare, hi-hat, two or three cymbals. There is a wealth of sound available just from that configuration as well as a sufficient challenge to utilize it well.

Was it hard to gain your footing after a personnel change in 2016-17?

Not really because it wasn’t an extreme regrouping. The guitarist Phil Robson moved to New York and alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher moved to the UK. While their instruments differ considerably, their stellar musicality is on a par. And, as I said before, John and I have been playing together for many years so it was a natural fit.

There is something about the musicians I pick for my groups that they all have in common. Maybe it’s just that, in addition to their musical sensibilities, they’re all nice people and tend to get along very well together, personally and musically. 

What inspired “Lifelike”?

“Lifelike”, the title, is a variation on “live” since it’s a recording of a live performance. What inspired it was touring around the UK in support of the previous album “Outlier.” The last gig on the tour was at London’s Vortex and I decided to document the moment, which I thought rightly would be a culmination of the band’s development since “Outlier.” 

Talk about the highlights of making this CD.

Unlike a studio recording, very little was required from the band other than simply playing the gig. The audience was receptive and their enthusiasm grew throughout the night. We had all played at the Vortex before, with the exception of Gonçalo, so it was comfortable. Alex Bonney engineered exceptionally well, having to somehow separate the instruments which were adjacent in close quarters. No second takes, obviously. I hoped it would turn out to be a good night, both musically and sonically; something releasable, or if not, at least a decent record commemorating the tour.

It wasn’t until mixing and mastering at Systems Two in Brooklyn with Max Ross that the sound really became dialed in. At that point I was certain about putting it out. Michael Janisch at Whirlwind Recordings was ecstatic upon hearing the results. I think “Lifelike” is a great representation of the band and I’m excited about its release.    

Are there any venues or festivals that you think are especially fit for this CD?

I can’t think of any festival or venue where this band wouldn’t be an asset to promoters. A few years ago I was invited to bring the group to the Amazonas Jazz Festival in Brazil on the basis of the promoter who happened to hear us in a small club in London. He didn’t know who we were. He just liked the music. Ideally, that is the way forward. To be heard is the main thing so I hope this album will further the cause. 

How does this album differentiate itself from your earlier works?

It differs mainly in personnel and in being a larger ensemble than I have had previously. Some of the music has appeared on previous releases but the interpretation is different and there are new pieces as well.

“Lifelike” is a continuation of what I’ve been doing for quite a while. Mainly having a cohesive ensemble playing original music not bound by convention, but maintaining principle I associate with the jazz legacy. 

What’s your favorite track?

I like all of them for various reasons but a highlight for me is “Dream Visitor” and what happens at the end with the horns forming a spontaneous ensemble and, unplanned, riffing together in unison. 

They are all originals. The only one I didn’t write, “Cançao do Amolador” by Gonçalo, might actually be my favorite track. It takes the band to a different place than any of the other tracks and enhances the overall program. 

So far, “Lament” is my favorite. What went into that song?

I had a drum student in the ’70s named Peter LaMaitre and we became close friends. He formed a band called the Higher Primates, an improvising big band, and was a very creative person in every respect. Gradually he found himself shut out of existing avenues of performing and became increasingly morose. He died in a motorcycle accident a few years later. I took this very hard. Such a waste.

As I was pondering this tragedy while sitting at the piano, the opening melody came to me. The final part of the tune comes from the fact that Peter was from New Orleans where, after the burial, there is a celebration of the deceased’s life. That section has some joyfulness and a lot of pathos too.    

What is planned for the release?

We have a number of dates in the UK during April and June. In the fall we also have some things coming and I’m hoping to fill up my datebook to the brim after “Lifelike” takes hold.

Other comments?

I would just like to thank you for asking me to contribute to your blog. It is an honor.

For more information, visit www.willfulmusic.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Jeff Williams. Top photo (c) Lester Barnes; second photo (c) John Rogers.
© Debbie Burke 2018