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The tragedy of pianist/producer James Williams' premature passing in July at the age of 53 is too great and painful too dwell upon at this early juncture, so suffice it to say that the sadness his untimely death has brought to his many, many friends and fans in the jazz community is truly immense. Williams was a prince among men, loved and respected by all who knew and performed with him and this four-volume set of duos with 24 individual players and singers just begins to plumb the depth and breadth of his immense abilities as an accompanist and soloist. The 43 tracks comprising these four discs (released separately under the titles Willpower, Focus , Out of Nowhere and Music For A While ) traverse a vast terrain of musical territory, underscoring the pianist's multifaceted talent.
The opening duet with bassist Christian McBride on the sometimes-saccharine standard "Rainy Days and Mondays" clearly demonstrates Williams' gospel roots and his gift for making even the most mundane material come to life. His dialogue with the superlative singer Etta Jones on "Skylark" shines a spotlight on another of jazz' most sorely missed masters. Renditions of three classics by saxophonists Frank Strozier, Benny Golson and Joe Henderson ("Frank's Tune," "Whisper Not" and "Inner Urge") with Steve Wilson, Russell Malone and Billy Pierce, aptly display his impeccable taste; just as the interpretations of his own compositions "Le Wizard de Basso," "Willpower" and "Be Real Special" with Ron Carter, Joe Lovano and Steve Nelson, respectively, reveal his unimpeachable talent as a composer. The piano-vocal duo with Freddie Cole singing "Close To You" proves him the perfect accompanist and on the closing "I Surrender All" collaboration with John Pattituci he shows himself to be a sensitive interpreter of spiritual music.
The other three volumes follow suit, featuring trumpeter Jon Faddis, saxophonists Houston Person and Loren Schoenberg, bassists Ray Drummond, Rufus Reid and Peter Washington, guitarist Dave Stryker and vocalists Mary Stallings, Kim Nalley, Miles Griffith, Steve Heck, Roger Holland and Thomas Trotter (as well as the aforementioned artists on Volume 1) exploring a wide ranging repertoire that includes jazz classics by Billy Strayhorn, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley, Thad Jones, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson and Donald Brown, a slew of standards, a few traditional pieces and several more wonderful Williams originals.
Williams entire discography including his work as a sideman with Art Blakey, Art Farmer, Wynton Marsalis, Benny Carter, Benny Golson, Elvin Jones and many others, in addition to his voluminous collection of albums as a leader of numerous varied ensembles of his own, is deserving of in depth investigation, but for a concentrated dose of pure Williams this timely release is a great place to begin an examination of a great pianist who gave us so much and (sadly) had much more music to give.
Volume 1: Willpower --1. Rainy Days & Mondays with Christian McBride; 2. Skylark with
Jones; 3. Frank's Tune with Steve Wilson; 4. Le Wizard de Basso with Ron Carter; 5. Whisper Not
withRussell Malone; 6. WillPower with Joe Lovano; 7. Be Real Special with Steve Nelson; 8. Close To You
with Freddy Cole; 9. Inner Urge with Billy Pierce; 10. I Surrender All with John Patitucci.
Volume 2: Focus --1. Focus with Peter Washington; 2. Gee Baby Ain't I Good To You with
Houston Person; 3. Put On A Happy Face with Russell Malone; 4. i Know It's You with Roger Holland; 5.
Easy Living with Mary Stallings; 6. Fourplay with Dave Stryker; 7. For My Nephews with Ray Drummond;
8. I've Got The World On A String with Steve Heck; 9. Groovin' High with Jon Faddis; 10. These Foolish
Things with Miles Griffin; 11. Daydream with John Clayton.
Volume 3: Out of Nowhere --1. I Mean You With Ron Carter; 2. That's My Desire With
Cole; 3. Dolphin Dance With Steve Nelson; 4. Out of Nowhere With Etta Jones; 5. When You're Smiling
With Rufus Reid; 6. A Child Is Born With Jon Faddis; 7. Teach Me Tonight With Kim Nalley; 8. Bassically
Simple With John Patitucci; 9. For All We Know With Roger Holland; 10. The Old Country With Peter
Washington; 11. Little B's Poem With Billy Pierce.
Volume 4: Music for a While --1. Thermo with Christian McBride; 2. Take Time For Love
Joe Lovano; 3. Undecided with Mary Stallings; 4. Walk with Me with Rufus Reid; 5. Old Times Sake with
Steve Wilson; 6. If I Loved You with Thomas Trotter; 7. The More I See You with Houston Person; 8.
Pieces of a Dream with Dave Stryker; 9. East of the Sun with Kim Nalley; 10. Music For a While with R.
Holland & T. Trotter.
Personnel: James Williams, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Joe Lovano, soprano and tenor saxophone; Freddy
Cole, vocal, Ron Carter, bass; Etta Jones, vocal; Rufus Reid, bass; Steve Wilson, alto saxophone; Mary
Stallings, vocal; Houston Person, Tenor saxophone; Billy Pierce, tenor saxophone; Dave Stryker, guitar;
Steve Nelson, vibes; Jon Faddis, trumpet; John Patitucci, bass; Peter Washington, bass; Kim Nalley,
vocal; Roger Holland, vocal; Russell Malone, guitar; Loren Schoenberg, tenor saxophone; Ray
Drummond, bass, John Clayton, bass, Steve Heck, vocal; Thomas Trotter, vocal; Miles Griffith; vocal.