Interview with Jeff Williams: Why? Because it was one of the greatest times for jazz! Video, new CD cover

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Jazz interview with jazz drummer Jeff Williams. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Jeff Williams: – Both my mother and father bought jazz albums when I was growing up. I would pick through them to find the ones I liked. The first ones that grabbed me were Ahmad Jamal’s trio recordings and Miles Davis’ Workin’ and Jazztrack. I was about eight years old when these came out. I had a pair of brushes and a cardboard box. When I came home from school I’d put these records on and play along with them until dinnertime. My father had shown me a basic brush stroke, after which I was off and running. The music spoke to me and opened a whole world.

At nine parents separated when my mother went to New York to become a professional jazz vocalist. I would spend summers and school vacations there with her and the rest of the time in Oberlin, Ohio with my father. At my mother’s side I met and heard most of the jazz greats of the 1960s.

JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

JW: – Once I had an actual set of drums I would attempt to imitate drummers from the records I was listen to, especially Vernell Fournier and Philly Joe Jones in the beginning. As things progressed my favorites expanded to include Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, and many more. I would experiment with tuning the drums as closely as possible to whatever drummer I was focusing on emulating.

My sound progressed as I took the things I liked that I was able to isolate, combining different aspects from all that I heard. Playing along with recordings really helped me to not only develop a sound appropriate to the music at hand but also to learn about different ‘feels’ present in the music.

JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

JW: – After playing for fifty-plus years I have moved away from specific exercises for the most part. On occasion I do enjoy working with John Riley’s comping exercises from his ‘Bop Drumming’ book. It’s helpful for accurate placement and fun to do while playing along with an actual music track. And Alan Dawson’s concise ‘Stick Control’ exercise (included in the John Ramsay book) does help to keep the hands in shape. Sometimes I’ll work on specific rudiments. Mostly though I enjoy sitting down at the drums and making music. When I run across something I like I’ll stay with it and see how I can develop it further. I also like to play standard tunes and especially Thelonious Monk compositions, which have lovely rhythmic combinations. I play these with the steady jazz ride cymbal beat, hi hat on 2 and 4, while executing the melodies between snare and bass drum, gradually moving into soloing around the drums while keeping the melody in my head and keeping the form of the song.

Recording myself, in practice sessions as well as during live gigs, has helped me to know the difference between how I think I’m sounding while playing versus how I actually sound.

JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

JW: – I think the answer to that is what happens the moment I sit down at the drums: My mind goes blank, in the sense that my entire attention is on the music that is about to come forth. I get very still and the thinking process seems to stop. If a thought arises it’s like a road sign that I may glance at but am not captured by. My influences are traceable in all likelihood but they have been incorporated into what has become my conception. I just respond to the music without an agenda.

JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

JW: – Music is always a big part of everyday life for me. I’m constantly engaged in one-way or another, whether listening, composing, reading about other musicians’ thoughts on music, etc. As far a preparing for a performance goes I want to be sure I’m in the flow of things generally – not nervous, no particular expectations or agenda, just looking forward to the downbeat. If it’s my band I will have prepared a set list but will also be prepared to alter it according to how the room and audience feels. Somehow the music I’m playing provides the stamina needed to play it. I never worry about that.

JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2020: Road Tales: Live at London Jazz Festival, how it was formed and what you are working on today?

JW: – What I love most about the new album is being able to share how much the band has developed over the intervening years it’s been together. And that it’s a live recording with no edits, exactly the way it went down. The musical adventures we embark upon during the performance show what is possible when a group is allowed the privilege of time spent together. The formation of this particular performance came about somewhat by circumstance. I had been touring with a sextet that included trumpet and piano but those two instrumentalists were not available for this date. I hadn’t even planned to record but the soundman at the venue offered to do it, fortunately.

At the moment, with live performance opportunities limited, I’m mainly working on composing new material and thinking about possible future projects while seeking to keep this band going forward.

JBN: – Ism is culled from a variety of lives dates with various performers over the course of a few years. Did your sound evolve during that time? And how did you select the musicians who play on the album?

JW: – Ism? Not sure what you mean. My sound definitely evolved, as did the sound of the band. There have been personnel changes, but not many. The core of the group, John O’Gallagher – alto saxophone (with whom I’ve been playing since the 1990s), Josh Arcoleo – tenor saxophone and Sam Lasserson – bass, has been intact for many years now. We have become more focused and concise as an ensemble, able to converse musically and tell a story collectively. I’m proud of our achievements.

Whom I choose for my group(s) depends entirely on the feeling I get when I play with a particular person. I suppose it entails a certain sensibility compatible with my own that allows us to understand each other musically as well as personally.

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

JW: – There must be many opinions on this subject. For me, the beauty of jazz is the answer to this question. It must stimulate the mind and body, the soul as well, or at least it must have soul, be heart-felt. Technique is nice too, like the icing on a cake. Different musicians combine these elements according to their own unit of measure. I like music to sound and feel good, which is probably most often subjective.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

JW: – I want to bring the audience in as much as possible. Speaking to them is one aspect, making them feel comfortable with us, finding something humorous to say helps break the ice. As to the music I play, I don’t necessarily think the audience has specific wants. Maybe they would like to hear something they know. Unless they are familiar with my music they may be disappointed that I’m not going to do that. My goal is to present my music and communicate it to the audience so clearly that they will want to stay with us through every moment of the performance. When we are able to do that, which happens most often, it’s the greatest feeling in the world –a new discovery for all concerned.

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

JW: – So many … I’ll share one: When Stan Getz hired me in 1972 (I was 22) his quartet included Hal Galper – piano and Dave Holland – bass. The first performance was in front of a few thousand people opposite Duke Ellington and his orchestra. Dizzy Gillespie and John Hendricks were also featured with Stan’s group. This was my first gig with Stan. I was picked up in limo, Duke’s drummer, Rufus ‘Speedy’ Jones, asked if he could use my drums so he wouldn’t have to set up his. (I said yes, of course.) I was playing in the Tony-ish modern style at the time – 4/4 on the hi hat. At one point Dizzy came over to me and gently said, “Just play 2 and 4 on the hi hat, everything works out better that way”. To say I was nervous is an understatement. It was way beyond that – stunned is more like it. So much so that my mind just gave up. All I could do was put one beat in front of another. It was then that I learned what still serves me well to this day: You can’t think and play at the same time.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

JW: – Young people, largely, are not going to be interested in hearing standards played. That music was once on the radio. It isn’t anymore, for the most part. But jazz has evolved. There is frequent discussion about what constitutes jazz and a lot of what is currently labeled ‘jazz’ is arguably unrecognizable as such, at least to those of an older generation. As a listener becomes interested in a particular jazz artist they may be inclined to search out their earlier work containing standard tunes and discover that they enjoy this as well as the current offerings. Jazz can be an off-putting proposition for many; too serious and elitist, seemingly hard to comprehend. One has to be bitten by the bug.

JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

JW: – Music is like its own universe. The act of playing music puts one in an altered state. This has been proven by studying activity in the brain. The listener experiences an alteration too. Spirit is what cannot be named. Music has that in common with spirit.

JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

JW: – Commercialization of music is problematic. It would be great to change it. I see no solution – musicians have to make a living. But there are also many who profit from music who may actually be harming it in the process. A star system that can only include a few musicians in each commercially concocted category means that there is no middle way to survive unless one is anointed to inhabit that realm. The choices can sometimes be quite arbitrary. Which means the quality can suffer.

The Internet has made sweeping changes in this model, but not all of them are positive. There is a generation that has not paid for the music they listen to and may be inclined to feel it should be free. This climate has forced musicians to seek other opportunities for revenue.

One thing? That live music be allowed to thrive, particularly in small venues where the interaction between performer and audience is intimate.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

JW: – Lately I have been revisiting Miles Davis Complete Plugged Nickel 1965, the Japanese version, which has superior sound, especially in regard to Tony Williams. Speaking of standard tunes, what this band was able to do with them should spark renewed interest from any musician into what is possible.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

JW: – Jazz is democracy in action. People coming together for the sake of the whole, for the purpose of helping each other make music and create beauty. That beauty inspires hope.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

JW: – New York in the mid-forties to early fifties – Minton’s, 52nd Street and all that.

Why? Because it was one of the greatest times for jazz.

JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

JW: – What was your motivation for becoming involved in this endeavor?

JBN: – Jazz is my life!!!

JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

JW: – Great!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

 

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