Live review

Steve Williamson Experience (2019 EFG LJF)

Steve Williamson Experience
(Pizza Express Jazz Club. 2019 EFG London Jazz Festival. 15 November 2019. 7pm set. Review by Alison Bentley)

“They’re greater than we were.” British saxophonist and composer Steve Williamson, formerly of the 80s/90s collective Jazz Warriors, introduced his young band of music college students. “We provide all that acumen and knowledge and we just pass it on- that’s what it’s about.” Part of the Gary Crosby-mentored Tomorrow’s Warriors, trio StringTing, (Rhiannon Dimond, violin; Jules Vaughan, viola; Miranda Lewis, cello,) with Hamish Nockles-Moore (bass) and Zoe Pascal (drums) brought powerful energy to Williams’ compositions and arrangements.

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Steve Williamson. Photo credit: Tim Dickeson

Invitation, “made famous by Joe Henderson,” introduced Williamson in stark, boppy mode- some Rollins phrasing, and sometimes a throaty Archie Shepp tone. He was unhurried, pausing to wait for the right notes, while 18-year old Pascal peppered his phrases with big drum rolls. Williamson broke away pieces of the melody into blustery free form, smiling encouragingly at the young band, directing them by playing to them. Celebrations, a Tomorrow’s Warriors commission, had wonderfully skipping funk beats, as natural as breathing, intricate sax phrases fringed in between- a reminder of the M-Base grooves that featured in Williamson’s 90s recordings. Classic funk licks mutated into time signatures beyond human hearing, Nockles-Moore’s solo filling out the acute angles.

In Celestial Points of Light, there was no smooth blend of strings with sax, but a raw energy as intonation was bent bluesily. Perhaps the strings could have been a little lower in the mix, as the focus was on Williamson’s restless sax, always reaching for higher multiphonic notes over repeated atonal string riffs. He considered each phrase from every angle. What would happen if he played it again? Bending Lights looped samples in impossibly complex timings, but somehow Pascal picked up the grooves, integrating them into his solo. It was like tying yourself to the ship’s mast to experience the storm- allowing the rhythms to take over, Williamson dropping startling soprano notes into the tempest. His arrangement of Coltrane’s Wise One calmed the mood, the sax notes rising in pulses of sound from the strings. They created the chords, fluttering around a #9, with its uneasy major/minor tensions.

The brilliantly jumpy groove of Wisdom of the Ages had the strings pulling out the threads of the chords and knitting them back together, the tenor coming in like a blast. The dark strings swooped behind the luscious sax vibrato. Hummingbird, from Williamson’s influential 90s Waltz for Grace album ended the set. Williamson’s spiky, exquisitely ragged phrases were in call and response with bass and drums, both powerful and intricate.

Tonight was all about Tomorrow’s Warriors, the compère told us. Williamson had been off the scene for a few years; Gary Crosby and Pizza Express had tempted him “out of retirement”, gigging and working with the young collective. We were very glad he did- aiding these young musicians “in their ascension”, as Williamson put it. And a rare opportunity to hear this world-class British saxophonist.

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