“I feel like I know what jazz is- the dedication, the seriousness, the humour, the joy of making this music.” Ohio-born, UK-based drummer Jeff Williams’ new album features John O’Gallagher (alto), Josh Arcoleo (tenor) and Sam Lasserson (bass.) He talked to Alison Bentley about the stories behind his new album recorded at the 2018 London Jazz Festival, Road Tales; about working with Stan Getz and Dave Liebman, and the importance of his current band’s longevity:
Jeff Willams. Photo credit: Miguel Estima
London Jazz News:It’s good to have a live album, now we can’t listen much to live gigs…Jeff Williams: That’s right- I think the music is more exciting when we’re feeding off the audience. I’m really happy with this album because I think it shows that we’ve been together for quite a while. When I started out playing with Stan Getz and Dave Liebman there were jazz clubs where you’d play for a week or longer. In this case we’ve been together, one gig at a time, for about the last 6 years, and the cohesiveness of the group is exceptional.
LJN:What do these musicians bring to your music? JW:John O’Gallagher, the alto saxophone player, I met back in the 90s in New York. I hadn’t come to the UK yet so we started playing quite a bit. He came here to get his PhD at the Birmingham conservatoire where he is now. Josh Arcoleo (tenor) was one of my students at the Royal Academy, and we just hit it off right away. I like the quartet without a harmonic instrument- maybe it allows me more space to colour the music and it feels like driving a Ferrari.
Josh and John challenge and inspire each other. And Sam Lasserson on bass provides a level of trust and communication between the bass and drums that is really essential for us to be able to go places musically. I know he’s always got my back and so I’m free to play whatever I want.
LJN:Do you feel you play melodically?JW: I figure the drums as being similar to a piano in the sense that you’ve got the full range from the bass drum to the cymbals and everything in between. I basically feel like a horn player.
LJN:Do you have any ‘Road Tales’ that go with the tracks on your new album? JW: Well…
New and Old is about my father. I found out he had a brain tumour. There was a piano where he lived in Las Vegas and that’s where I started writing the tune- it sounds like a child’s nursery rhyme in the middle section.
The Interloper is about the person who’s invited to the party and you can’t get them out of the house. It’s a bull in a china shop feeling. It reminds me of Thelonious Monk and the way his music is very often built on rhythms, almost as if the rhythms come before the melody. All of my music is something that’s come to me. I don’t want to impose some preconceived idea on it before it can develop on its own. Sometimes it takes months. Then again sometimes a melody will come to me and I’ll just have it – The Interloper was like that.
With Borderline, the melody came to me but I didn’t understand it rhythmically at first. It sounded to me like a Mexican Hat Dance- again a humorous tune.
Oddity is in the form of a 12-bar blues but the chord changes come in different places. You don’t have to tell musicians of this calibre anything- they just have to get to know the music, which is what I want. I want them to put their stamp on it.
Under the Radar – the title came from a review of a Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach CD I’m on. It said, “Jeff Williams, curiously under the radar.” Then I realised the title goes along with the “airport security” theme and I could put three tunes together as a medley. Under the Radar is a 6-bar blues but Search Me and Scrunge are based on a repeated bass line; Scrunge is funk in 7/4.
She Can’t Be a Spy: there was an article in the New York Times when I was working on that tune. Spies were working in the neighbourhood, and one of the neighbours said: “She can’t be a spy- look what she did with the hydrangeas!”
Double Life has multiple metres happening simultaneously, like on Miles Davis’ version of Wayne Shorter’s Footprints.
LJN: You’ve worked with so many amazing musicians. Do you still feel their influence?JW: It’s not specific stylistically, but I feel like I know what jazz is- the dedication, the seriousness, the humour, the joy of making this music. It requires digging deep within yourself; to find honesty and not impose your will on the music; to let the music play you. It’s an interesting balance because you need some ego to get on stage and think you can do it. On the other hand you have to give that up in terms of having an agenda, because it’s so in the moment. You are a conduit for music. Going on the road at 22 with Stan Getz was a tremendous lesson in that.
My previous albums have contained some of the same material as Road Tales, and for me an actual band can do so much more than the sum of its parts. Look at Miles Davis playing essentially the same tunes in the 50s with that great quintet, and then in the 60s with the second band. The original repertoire was being played and it was completely different. I remember seeing them in ‘66 and it was incredible. That’s the idea of this record. Rather than changing all the time, I think this recording shows what longevity can do for the music, and I hope it comes across.