Sunday, August 23, 2015

John Williams - Rollicking, Rolling and Rumbling

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Onomatopoeia - words that sound like the sound they are describing, words like rumbling, roaring, booming, drumming, thumping, et al.

I picked this particular set of onomatopoetic words to help describe the sounds I hear when listening to pianist John Williams. No, not that “John Williams.”

The musician I am referring to is John Thomas Williams, the pianist who worked with Stan Getz, Brookmeyer, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and Cannonball Adderley in the ’50s not the John Towner Williams, who had a brief career as a jazz pianist and went on to write the music for Star Wars, a bunch of Steven Spielberg films and to also assume the resident directorship of the Boston Pops Orchestra.

Like Russ Freeman, Eddie Costa, and Horace Silver, John Williams often used the thumb and the ring finger of the left hand to play bass clef intervals instead of full chords and when you wiggle the wrist while doing this you can get a trembling, rumbling sound going reminiscent of the boogie woogie pianists but without the repetitiveness.

Because of the drum-like patterns and punctuations he constantly inserts in the bass notes of the instrument with his left hand, John adds a very percussive and propulsive dimension to the improvisations he creates with his right hand.

His piano playing sounds as though it moves from side-to-side and creates images of a music that is rocking, rolling and rumbling along. Not surprisingly, one of John’s original composition is entitled Railroad Jack. OK, I’ll stop here and not push the metaphors too far.

Although he was only on the Jazz scene for seven or so years [circa 1953-1960] John’s style of playing made a powerful [there I go again] impression on a lot of Jazz fans, including me.

I did not know a great deal about John’s time in the World of Jazz, but I reached out to some friends who did so I could do a proper job of remembering him on these pages.

The following overview and interview with John by Alun Morgan appeared in the October, 1962 edition of Jazz Monthly.  I plan to follow it with a two, separate postings of an interview that Steve Voce conducted with John in 1988. Steve is a British journalist and music critic who contributed regularly to The Independent and to Jazz Journal for over 40 years.

John Williams: The Pianist from Vermont
by Alun Morgan
October 1962, Jazz Monthly

“THE REPUTATIONS OF JAZZ musicians would be ephemeral indeed were it not for the gramophone record. (The legend of Buddy Bolden is something of an exception for it dates from an essentially romantic period of jazz's history.) Pianist John Williams is a case in point, for although he was prominent in New York jazz circles during the middle nineteen-fifties I have heard no news of his whereabouts for some four or five years. Coinciding almost exactly with Williams's withdrawal from the spotlight came the appearance of another John Williams, also a pianist, who is still very active in Los Angeles as the leader of orchestras for film, television and recording studio work. The two are not, as far as I know, related in any way and to avoid confusion during the brief period when both pianists were making records the Los Angeles-based musician called himself both John Towner Williams and John Towner.

The subject of this article and the ensuing discography is a New Englander, born in the little town of Windsor in the Green Mountain state on January 28, 1929. Vermont is a small state which relies largely on its agriculture for economic stability but there is a long-established quarrying industry too. Although Vermont claims to have the purest racial stock in America the quarrying of slate brought in settlers from the slate quarry areas of Wales and it is possible that Williams is of Welsh descent. Be that as it may he gained his earliest musical experience during the four years he spent as a church organist.

From this beginning he moved into local dance band work until 1945 when he crossed the state line into Massachusetts to join Mal Hallett's last band in Boston. With Hallett at the time were trumpeter Don Fagerquist and tenor saxist Buddy Wise and it was this band which gave Williams his first taste of New York. By 1948 he was with Johnny Bothwell’s band (the drummer with Bothwell was Frank Isola who was later to work with Williams on many occasions) and had begun to play sessions with another New Englander, bass player Teddy Kotick. In January 1951 Williams was called up for Army service and played baritone horn at Fort Devens with an army band, later moving on to Korea with another service orchestra.

Demobilised at the beginning of 1953 John played piano for Charlie Barnet during February of that year then the following month became a regular member of the Stan Getz quintet and remained for six months until an incident caused the temporary disbandment of the Getz group. During the following year he spent six months at the Manhattan School of Music and worked with various New York based groups including that of Don Elliott. When Getz reformed his quintet in October, 1954, Williams returned to the piano stool and remained with the tenor saxist for another eight months. Getz, a strict disciplinarian so far as rhythm sections are concerned, was hard put to find a suitable replacement for Williams and asked John to stay on for a time when an arrangement with Lou Levy failed to work out to everyone's advantage. By the early summer of 1955 Williams was leading his own trio at the New York Clubs and was recording as a sideman with bands of all sizes, from Larry Sonn's big studio orchestra to the Phil Woods quartet.

Up until the end of 1956 he was prominently represented on record but since that time I have learned little or nothing of his career. He cropped up on a record made in Miami under the leadership of trombonist Lon Norman but I have no note of the recording date of the LP (Criteria LP2, 'Gold Coast Jazz Volume 2'). If any reader of this article has any news of Williams's whereabouts of late I would be grateful for the information.

Stylistically Williams is easily identifiable and his work is, in many ways, more typical of an older jazz era than of the post-Bud Powell pianists. He has been criticised for having a heavy touch and an unsympathetic approach as an accompanist. Both charges are unfair and untrue and may be refuted easily by reference to almost any of his records. Stan Getz is not a man to suffer fools gladly and it is quite unlikely that the tenor saxist—who has worked and recorded with Al Haig; Hank Jones, Bill Evans, Horace Silver, Duke Jordan, etc.—would have employed Williams for over a year had he not measured up to the demanded high standard. Williams admires Silver, Powell and Hank Jones and was quoted on the sleeve of his second trio LP (EmArcy MG 36061) as saying "I admire Hank Jones because he gets a flying flow into his phrasing and yet is still playing the crowded quaver type of solo; I don't know how he does it but it's beautiful to hear".

At this period in his career—1955—he was asked about his own playing style: "I have been feeling lately as if I must want to be a Zoot Sims— Al Cohn piano player, to do on the piano what they do with their horns. I find, in my rare good moments, that my rhythmic freedom will allow me to open up and widen out and damn near soar, as they do so easily". Swinging is something which seems to come easily and naturally to Williams whose basic style is founded on a see-sawing, syncopated use of both hands. This is hardly a "modern" approach but it is extremely effective as a foil to the long, sinuously swinging lines of men such as Getz and Zoot Sims.

Without a great deal of adaptation Williams's normal method of expression can be turned into a kind of boogie style, which is just what happens on the deliberately funny Getz record of Roundup lime. On ballads John sometimes uses the Bud Powell grand manner (albeit a little less florid) with spread chords and long runs between phrases but on other occasions he adapts his medium tempo style to give a highly individual sound. Typical of this is the quite charming half chorus he plays on the Bill De Arango LP version of These Foolish Things. The general concept is stealthy, with the left hand sneaking in to play sparse chords punctuating the right hand line. Like many other intelligent pianists he is very conscious of his instrument's limitations and has tried to overcome them.

He has found it hard to achieve the soaring, free-swinging style of the tenor saxophone at the keyboard "because of the piano's percussive-type action and the difficulty in sustaining notes or bending them. Emotion is, of course, harder to get out of just hands alone than out of mouth and hands. But sometimes 1 have an encouraging measure of success; even find myself using the sustaining pedal in a queer way in spots. Also, finally discovering the helpfulness of dynamics". He is represented as a composer on record by a handful of tunes all of which are interesting, each one being a natural outgrowth of his solo style. I’ll Take the Lo Road and Blue Mirror are both blues although the latter has eight bar interludes between the choruses. (Owners of the "Getz at the Shrine" set of LPs might be interested to know that the “warming-up" by Williams at the beginning of the first side, immediately preceding the Duke Ellington announcement, is a short and unscheduled version of I’ll Take the Lo Road.) Purple cow. a thirty-two bar AABA composition recorded by a quintet under Zoot Sims's leadership, could only have been written by Williams, for even though trumpet and tenor play the thematic middle-eight the sound is definitely pianistic. Williams Tell and Shiloh use the same form, viz. a thirty-two bar chorus split into two sixteen bar sections, while Okefenokee Holiday has a fifty-six bar chorus made up 16-16-8-16.

Although John Williams's style is very individual he seems to have had little influence on others and the occasional similarities between his work and that of both Russ Freeman and George Wallington are probably coincidental. His continued absence from record is regretted and I hope this short appreciation will draw some attention to a man whose work is in danger of being overlooked.”

John can be heard performing his original composition "Okefenokee Holiday" with Bill Anthony, bass and Frank Isola, drums on the following video.

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