My biggest “eureka” moment as a budding jazz musician (or, to be accurate, the moment when I decided I needed to BE a budding jazz musician and not just a dabbler) came the first time I heard “Magical Trio 2” by James Williams. My friend Noah Bloom (who was studying with fellow Art Blakey alumnus Valery Ponomarev) turned me on to some of James’ work with the Messengers, and so I went and picked up Magical Trio 2 on cassette at Cutler’s Records in New Haven, having in the meantime also seen a clip on PBS of James playing in the band of Elvin Jones, who is also on the record. Playing that album was like the moment in the “Wizard of Oz” where it goes from black & white to color – in a flash I heard everything I wanted music to be, all in one place. Hip, yet emotionally direct, rhythmically probing yet so in-the-pocket, melodically unpredictable, yet oozing blues in every note. Until that moment I was interested in jazz, but with some ambivalence. I was never the same again.
And that’s to say nothing of his profoundly kind, gentle soul. The first time I met him was in 1992 when I was auditioning for colleges and went to hear him at Bradley’s in New York with Kevin Eubanks and John Clayton. The show was wonderful (as were so many I saw in the subsequent 12 years) and after the set I waited nervously in line to meet this man who had already inspired me so much on record. I overheard someone ahead of me in line ask James what’s goin’ on, to which he responded “oh MAN, just getting a lesson every night from these fine musicians.” That complete lack of ego was bewildering enough, but then when I had my moment and took a deep breath and asked if I could take a lesson with him, he smiled and said “you don’t want a lesson with me” and scribbled something on a cocktail napkin. I walked away glad to have met him but confused and disappointed. Only years later did I understand why this humble man had taken that opportunity to write down Harold Mabern’s phone number. I was fortunate to spend some time with James in the years that followed and his warmth and humility were consistent forces.
If life were just, the Soulful Mister Williams, who died of liver cancer in 2004, would’ve been 65 today. And, for that matter, if the music world were just, all his music would be in print. Most of it isn’t, sadly, which makes my compiling of this list challenging – I don’t want to leave out discussion of the tracks that moved me the most, but I also don’t want those who are less familiar with this music to miss out because they’re not inclined to search the interwebs for used CDs. As such, I’m shortening my descriptions and hedging my bets with two lists – one of my “real” top 10 and then another of 10 great tracks that as of this writing are in print and can be found for download or legal streaming. I suggest you go to those 10 right away and I’ll play you the first 10 (and, if you ask, many more that couldn’t fit on this list) the next time you have brunch at my house.
Top 10 All-Time Favorite JW tracks
1 ) “In the Open Court” from Magical Trio 2
The centerpiece of the aforementioned eureka moment was when I heard this mind-blowingly soulful tribute to some of James’ favorite basketball players. The whole album, with Ray Brown and Elvin Jones, has had an incalculable impact on my own musical conception.
2 ) “Yes, Yes, Oh Yes” from Truth, Justice and the Blues (with ICU)
The Intensive Care Unit (featuring Miles Griffith and Roger Holland on vocals) was a unique project that utterly blew my mind when this album came out (and when I got to see the CD release show in NY at Visiones).
3 ) “Rainy Days and Mondays” from Jazz Dialogues
The four-CD Jazz Dialogues set features James in duets with a wide array of his colleagues. There are many transcendent nuggets here, but my favorite is this uber-soulful reading of a tune popularized by the Carpenters by James and Christian McBride.
4 ) “Reedus’ Rendezvous” from Meet the Magical Trio
Any questions about James’ ability to transcend “soulful” playing and throw down can be instantly dispelled by listening to him burn with Charnett Moffett and Jeff “Tain” Watts on this tribute to his nephew, drummer Tony Reedus (who sadly would pass on four and a half years after his uncle).
5 ) “Dancing Trees” from Sail Away by Tom Harrell
This album in general is one of my favorites of both James and the great trumpeter/composer Tom Harrell. Instead of picking the hard-swinging “Buffalo Wings” (as hard-swingers are well represented on this list), I landed on this ethereal track featuring just Tom, James, guitarist John Abercrombie and flutist Cheryl Pyle.
6 ) “Pass Me Not (Oh Gentle Savior)” from Four Pianos for Phineas by the Contemporary Piano Ensemble
This album features a quartet of Phineas Newborn, Jr. disciples, flanking James with Harold Mabern, the late Mulgrew Miller and Geoffrey Keezer (joined for subsequent projects by Donald Brown). This track is a trio number, though, as James plays a lovely ballad version of this spiritual with Bob Cranshaw and Billy Higgins, sandwiched in between an utterly gorgeous solo piano intro and coda.
7 ) “Speak Low” from Live at Bradleys by Kevin Eubanks
This is the same drummer-less trio and venue as in the anecdote above, with the exception of Robert Hurst taking over the bass chair.
8 ) “Say, Dr. J” from Reflections in Blue by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
Did I mention that James liked basketball? This is a super-swinging tune from his days with the Messengers.
9 ) “Arioso” from Arioso Touch
This tricky but gorgeous tune was premiered on this trio session with Buster Williams and Billy Higgins.
10 ) “Alter Ego” from Force of Four by Billy Cobham
Probably James’ best-known composition, this tune has been recorded a number of times, including this session featuring Ron Carter and Donald Harrison alongside James and bandleader Biilly Cobham.
10 Great In Print Tracks
1 ) “Spirit(ually) James” from Soulful Serindipity by James Williams and Bobby Watson
One of my favorite solo piano tracks by anyone ever. Classical, Ellingtonia, spiritual – check, check, check. The rest of this lovely record consists of duets with his longtime friend and colleague (and former fellow Jazz Messenger) Bobby Watson.
2 ) “Dialectical Interchange” from Art Forum by Greg Osby
James’ balance of soulful and modern is on particularly strong display here, and on this whole album.
3 ) “A Certain Attitude” from Me and Mr. Jones by Javon Jackson
Want to hear James swing hard? Want to hear him lock up with the great Elvin Jones? Want to hear one of his own tunes? Well, have I got a track for you . . .
4 ) “Ballad for Gabe-Wells” from Four on the Outside by Curtis Fuller
This lovely tune by trombonist Fuller is a great example of James’ sensitive ballad playing, though they double-up the time feel on the piano solo, so his infectious swing is also on display.
5 ) “The Soulful Mister Timmons” from Live at Bubba’s by Art Blakey (currently issued on Gold Collection, Vol. 2 by Wynton Marsalis)
Okay, I’ll go out on a limb and say it – one of the greatest (and certainly most underrated) incarnations of the Jazz Messengers was the early 80s unit with Bobby Watson, Bill Pierce, Wynton Marsalis and the late Charles Fambrough. Probably James’ best-known contribution to their book was this hard-swinging tribute to one of his predecessors in that band’s piano chair, which can also be found on the (hopefully back in print any day now) Album of the Year record.
6 ) “Rise to the Occasion” from Ph. D by Art Farmer
This swinging tune is one of a number of JW originals recorded on the three albums he did as a member of Art Farmer’s quintet featuring Clifford Jordan (and, on this record, augmented to a sextet by the presence of Kenny Burrell).
7 ) “Affaire D’Amour” from Live at Smalls Vol. 1 & 2 by Bill Mobley Jazz Orchestra
The wonderful composer and trumpet player (and fellow Memphis son) had a close relationship with James and arranged a number of his tunes for big band; I feel like this one is an honorary example of that based on its debut recording on the Progress Report album (it was subsequently recorded by its composer, Donald Brown) and this performance features JW himself guesting on piano.
8 ) “1983 A.D” from Waltzin’ with Flo by Alan Dawson
This burning tune (sometimes called “Changing of the Guard”) is a highlight of James’ appearance on this album by his Berklee colleague, the legendary drummer Alan Dawson.
9 ) “Old Times Sake” from You Got What It Takes by Kevin Mahogany
This swinging tune, a staple of the ICU repertoire, sounds like it could have been a standard, but it’s a fun JW tune – this upbeat version also features the great Benny Golson.
10 ) “It’s Easy to Remember” from Ballads: Remembering John Coltrane by Karrin Allyson
James’ elegant ballad work is on display here as well, in a gentler reading to contrast the Curtis Fuller track above.