Charles Williams’s new CD “Flavors of Jazz” tingles on the taste buds and proves this pianist can swing for sure. A musician who loves arranging, he leads a trio and performs in several bands with that fat, big band feel – the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, the Louis Neal Orchestra and his newest ensemble called Genre.
On “Flavors of Jazz” Williams took jazz’s lush waltz feeling à la Vince Guaraldi and handcrafted a lovely original tune called “Macheé” dedicated to his daughter. It’s a perfect and humble expression of heartfelt joy. “I Can’t Help It” starts with a brave bass line that’s got the changes that satisfy while adding spirit and dynamics. An amazing cover of “Wonderful World” opens with a silky R&B vibe and then swings all on its own. Funkier with a feather-weight touch is “Chelsea Bridge.”
His discography visits gospel, holiday and smooth. With generosity, style and a willingness to learn and to teach, paying special attention to the open minds of the youth in his community, there are no restrictions in his jazz journey.
What did you enjoy most about trombone in your early years as a musician?
Honestly my first choice was the clarinet, but since the school didn’t rent clarinets, my band teacher handed me a trombone. The trombone was quite a challenge at first, but thanks to my music teacher Reginal Buckner I was able to get a grip on the instrument. Also, as a trombonist, I enjoyed the opportunity to see and play with some of the world’s biggest artists in jazz at that time.
Our high school jazz band was invited to the Paris International Jazz Festival in Paris, France and won first place for high school jazz bands in the world under the direction of Leon Brady in 1972. With that title, we were fortunate enough to meet many top jazz artists. I learned improvisation on trombone through a series of summer programs in Kansas City (Kansas) at a community center called Turner House. The National Endowment of the Arts funded this program and greats like Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Cannonball & Nat Adderley, Ernie Wilkins, Rich Matteson, Joe Jones, David Baker and Max Roach taught us basic jazz and improvisational skills. We performed with them in the park for the local community.
Then you crossed over to piano. How has the trombone helped shape the pianist you are today?
I actually started with piano first around age 3 or 4 (I didn’t pick up the trombone until the age of 12). My aunt Ellen paid for my first lessons because she saw the gift in me. We had an old player upright in our home. I experimented with it and could play by ear way before age 7. I’d listen to our old records and search for the chords and melodies I was hearing in my head.
Music ran in my family. My dear mom would play some boogie-woogie for us and I just loved it! My grandmother played piano as well and my Uncle Curtis Williams sang with the old fifties groups The Penguins and The Hollywood Flames. He wrote the song “Earth Angel.”
Talk about how you switch gears when you play with different bands, for example the KC Jazz Orchestra and the Louis Neal Orchestra?
Switching gears is easy for me. With KCJO we do several major concerts at our Kauffman Arts Center in KC along with other events outside of that venue. Although we do more jazz-centered music, we also jump into other genres depending on the theme of the concert. For instance, we’ve done arrangements from the Motown era and of artists like Earth Wind & Fire, Joni Mitchell, The Beatles, and many more. We’ve backed many great artists like Ernie Andrews, Benny Golson, Wycliff Gordon, Ann Hampton Calloway, The Four Freshmen, New York Voices, Clark Terry and Harold Jones.
Louis Neal also does many general jazz pieces by greats like Basie and Benny Golson, but he concentrates on R&B tunes. For instance, he arranged music from artists such as Barry White, Fourplay, Toni Braxton and Marvin Gaye. I just love the flexibility of both bands!
You started a new ensemble, Genre. What do you play?
I started this group a five to seven years ago because I am a pianist who loves to play a multiplicity of musical genres. I love playing funk, smooth jazz, Motown review shows, and working with singers. I am not locked into just one type of music.
The musicians I picked are versatile musically and just very flexible. Also I incorporate young- school musicians with old-school. I feel we can learn from each other and make a sound that will be out of this world! It’s like a form of mentoring the old school music and also being open to listening to each other’s ideas.
One musician (bass player Blair Bryant) left the group to pursue his career and is currently playing with Najee. We will break out with Bob James, Jeff Lorber, George Duke, Ramsey Lewis, along with more pop songs if a singer is on board for the night. I’ll switch gears from time to time and do more of a jazz standards night with a different group of musicians.
How would you describe the jazz scene where you live? What are your favorite clubs there?
It’s pretty good here in KC. Many people come here to get a taste of what they don’t get to experience in other cities.
Lots of musicians are staying busy and that’s a good thing! We are fortunate to have the American Jazz Museum here in our city, and this draws musicians from all over the world. Just this past weekend, Delfeayo Marsalis came in to do a master class with our young upcoming vocalist, and he also combos at our American Jazz Academy Program.
What festival are you dying to play?
I am down to do any festival! I’d love to do The Festival International de Jazz de Montreal in Québec, the Chicago Jazz Festival, the festivals in Newport, Jacksonville, New Orleans, Montreux and Copenhagen, and I’d love to play clubs in the NYC area, Chicago, Europe and Asia.
“Flavors of Jazz” seemed like a lot of fun to produce – the joy shines through. What was it like making this CD?
Since my budget was tight, we only had a six-hour session to lay all the tracks. Thanks to Michael Warren (drums) and DeAndre Manning (electric bass), who helped make it happen. We had a lot of fun being creative!
I arranged all the songs, and they’re all covers except “Machee” which was written for my daughter. That was her nickname.
I play from my heart. I think that is important. Long ago I was told what comes from the heart reaches the heart.
Your most memorable gig?
I had to sub for the great Clark Terry back in the late 90’s. He came into town and took ill all of a sudden, so my old high school teacher asked if I could sing his rendition of “Mumbles” which I hadn’t done in over 35 years. A fun thing to do again after all those years. I think I surprised a lot of people that I could do it. It was a little high for my voice but we managed and received a standing ovation. I got to see Clark at the hospital after the concert and he was so grateful.
What do audiences most ask you about?
Who is my favorite pianist? Answer: Oscar Peterson.
Apparently you like Monk. Would you agree his “Blue Monk” is an outstanding song?
Yes, it is a great song along with many of his other compositions. Monk had a dissonant sound in his playing which was very unique. I feel like I came up in one of the best eras of music ever!
Plans for 2020?
To seek out venues and festivals outside of KC and the US, and set up some tours. I’d love to go into schools and community centers to share jazz with students.
My biggest desire is to play music and share the gift God has given me. I love mingling with people and other musicians. I love working with young musicians and mentoring them in the right directions with the hope that they’ll pass it on.
For more information visit www.charleswilliamspiano.com.