Jeff Williams’ trio Bloom featuring pianist Carmen Staaf and bassist Michael Formanek has eight UK tour dates and a workshop in May. In this feature he explains how this trio was formed. This feature stems from extended conversation with Alex Hitchcock which was also the occasion for Jeff to share some memories and to reflect on the different, and in one case dangerous, methods of some bandleaders he has known:
To me, says Jeff Williams, jazz has to have this unknown quantity, to be on the edge of maybe falling apart. After a while you have a repertoire of things you can do – to not do those things, to not make that choice and see what happens. You want to surprise yourself with things you didn’t know about, that grow out of being in the moment. Trusting yourself in the moment and listening, and letting the music play you.
Carmen Staaf and I feel the time the same way. From the moment we started playing I felt a connection and she did too. Michael Formanek can do almost anything, so he’s adjusting to our connection, and he and I have a long history. That kind of relationship is immediate, it either happens or it doesn’t. It makes me want to play and fires my imagination. I booked a studio and we recorded mostly first takes. The first tune is us warming up – it’s just what happened that day.
There are two schools of thought – one being bandleaders who pit members of the band against each other. Miles was famous for doing that, I think Stan Getz was doing it too. Other people just let you do what you do, which has been my approach. I rarely say anything because I have a sense of how each person will treat the music, and that’s what I want – their stamp on my music.
This trio has only played live twice, both times in New York, so we’re just getting started. The Miles and Coltrane bands played on a regular basis, which is very hard to do now. With Dave Liebman, we had a van and drove all through Europe and the States. We were in our twenties and that experience was incredible. There was no funding. Maybe you’d have one big concert – we played opposite Weather Report in 1976. One gig in Vancouver was double booked – no gig, no money that night, no hotel, and we all slept in the same room. That’s an adventure I don’t want to have any more.
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A lot of younger musicians in the UK have looked at the opportunity to play with me as something they can gain something from, and I gain a lot from them. Maybe because I’m a New York jazz musician who came up in that scene, there’s an authenticity in my playing. I think I have a responsibility to nurture younger musicians. But I don’t look at it that way, I’m inspired if somebody sounds good.
I had a cardboard box and a pair of brushes, so I played along with records at seven years old, imagining myself there. The more I did it the more it became real. I was playing with Frank ‘Count’ Williams in Oberlin at fourteen. The first night the sax player can’t play, he’s laughing so hard – he can’t believe, looking at me, that I would know how to do this. It was a wonderful experience. No drum solos, nothing fancy.
I wanted to go straight to New York because Tony played with Miles when he was 17. That’s being on a mission – I knew I had a certain schedule or that hook up would never happen. I had certain people I wanted to play with – Horace Silver, Stan, Miles – I was shooting for the top of the food chain. I started playing informally with the Breckers and Liebman, Marc Copland, Bob Berg, Bergonzi. I was dragging my drums all over New York. I played with Dave Holland, who was playing with Stan Getz, which is how that happened. Somebody has to anoint you, or that used to be the case.
At the end of the second week of Stan Getz’s band at the Vanguard, he gives me the money and it’s really not that much. He said ‘I’ll give you more if I think you deserve it’. He got Jack DeJohnette to do a tour of Japan and asked me to do the gigs Jack didn’t want. I said ‘you’ll have to pay me a lot more money’ and he basically took a swing at me and that was it. I heard a tape of Jack playing the same music and realised I could do more than I had been doing. I could put more fire into it and be more creative – hearing someone like Jack made me realise I could play the music better than I had been playing it.
The sound in the room is important – I had this whole other notion of Joe Henderson from the records because he knew how to use a microphone so well. But his sound was really small. I was bashing away and he didn’t hire me. Most of what I learned was from sitting in front of masters. The great thing about drums is you can really see what the person is doing, you can analyse it.
Free music has come to predominate what’s happening in New York, whereas the free music in the 60s just about killed jazz clubs. As Paul Bley noted when he was playing with Ornette in LA, you could tell when the band was playing because everybody was on the sidewalk smoking. But now – it’s taken a long time – people are open-minded. (pp)
(12 May – De Montfort University, Leicester, Workshop)
13 May – De Montfort University, Leicester
14 May – Birmingham Conservatoire
15 May – Wakefield Jazz
16 May – Jazz Northeast, Newcastle Literary & Philosophical Society
17 May – National Centre for Early Music Centre , (NCEM) York
18 May – Pizza Express, Dean St, London
19 May – The Bear Club, Luton (one of the very last gigs there, according to reports)
20 May – Watermill Jazz, Dorking