James Williams’s Magical Trio

Though he just turned 49 last week, pianist James Williams has already had a full career. As de facto music director for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the late 70s, he helped maintain the band’s standards until Wynton Marsalis arrived in ’81. Williams augmented the Messengers’ repertoire with compositions that hinted at the terrific tunes he would write for his breakthrough albums Progress Report and Alter Ego in ’84 and ’85 (both on Sunnyside), which featured his piano in an unusual front line with two reedists and guitarist Kevin (“Ha ha, Jay!”) Eubanks. A decade later, Williams came up with another out-of-the-ordinary lineup, this time for his band ICU, adding two male vocalists to a conventional quartet to show off the gospel influence he absorbed growing up in Memphis in the 50s and 60s. But despite his ingenuity as a composer, arranger, and bandleader, his greatest strength is still his piano work, which spans much of jazz history–ragtime and funk, bebop balladry and postbop modality. He’s passionately studied the way the innovations of past masters have interlaced to form the history of the instrument, and this has given his wide-ranging, easygoing brilliance a tasteful charm. Williams coined the “Magical Trio” handle in the late 80s, when he recorded with Ray Brown and his old boss Blakey, and has continued to use the name any time he leads a trio with important players from preceding generations. Some listeners may find this particular trio a bit less magical than promised, since bassist Ron Carter has been replaced by Eddie Gomez. But Gomez has had at least as much influence on jazz bass as Carter, and at Lush Life last summer he proved he’s still an extraordinarily nimble player of generous imagination. And Williams’s other bandmate, the revivified Billy Higgins, would deserve his status as a jazz legend just for his drumming on Ornette Coleman’s first discs; he practically defines swing in the postbop era. Monday and Tuesday, 8 and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jimmy Katz.