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Don Williams' Tribute to Billy James

David A. Orthmann By

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Don Williams' Tribute to Billy James
Trumpets Jazz Club
Montclair, NJ
February 18, 2010

Revered by Hammond B-3 organ and soul-jazz aficionados, drummer Billy James, who died last November at the age of 73, is best known for his role in the bands of organist Don Patterson. James' galvanizing ride cymbal beat and tasteful fills were an important part of a number of Patterson's 1960s Prestige Records sides, which featured heavyweights such as Sonny Stitt and Booker Ervin.

It's a shame that there were only a handful of James' fans and colleagues in attendance at a tribute organized by drummer Don Williams. The venue, Trumpets Jazz Club, was the scene of some of James' late career triumphs in The Groove ORGANization, a trio that included Gene Ludwig, another Hammond B-3 master, and guitarist Bob DeVos. In addition to the disappointing turnout, it was difficult to fathom why Williams, who wasn't shy about speaking into the microphone, failed to mention James before, during or after the opening set.

Williams and his band mates didn't waste any time transforming the bandstand into something akin to a playground, reminding us that at its best, jazz is a sophisticated form of play. A 60-minute performance seemed to go by in an instant. The group—organist Dave Braham, guitarist Cliff Howell and conga player Butch Johnson (who joined the group mid-set)—swung in a direct, unpretentious manner and displayed a winning combination of mutual support, spirited rapport and cogent individual efforts.

A virtuoso at saying a lot in a straightforward, comprehensible language, Braham was the source of boundless positive energy. Needing no tricks or gimmicks to communicate his enthusiasm to the audience, the organist's solos were models of intelligence, economy and logic. During a medium-tempo version of "There Is No Greater Love," among other things, he implied double time, sustained a chord for a few bars and briefly evoked the blues. Totally in sync with Williams' hard, swinging beat, Braham employed single note and chordal combinations on an unannounced selection that packed a lot of punch and made perfect sense. Sounding like a church organist on the tune's bridge, he played a stunningly beautiful rendition of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow."

Howell, too, delivered his share of bright moments. His solo on the set's unnamed opening number encompassed fluid single note runs, a repetitive five-note pattern and a brief interlude of descending chords. The guitarist's turn on "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" included a variation of the tune's melody and a bracing chordal climax.

Williams' arsenal of rhythmic devices kept the band jumping. At the onset of "There Is No Greater Love," nifty brushwork was augmented by the chomping of the hi-hat on beats two and four. After switching to sticks for Howell's solo, rim knocks spit out partial triplet figures, the snare executed punchy shuffle rhythms and irregular accents and a long buzz roll trumpeted the end of a chorus. Throughout the set, Williams engaged in a lively exchange of ideas with Braham. For example, in a series of four-bar trades near the end of "All The Things You Are," he picked up on the organist's last phrase and immediately repeated it on the snare.

There is certainly more than one way to honor a man's life and the significance of his work. In the absence of heartfelt tributes by friends, admirers and colleagues, Williams and company celebrated the memory of Billy James by offering a rousing set of jazz, and they had a good time doing it.

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