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C.I. Williams: When Alto Was King

Joel Roberts By

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If you don't know the name C.I. Williams, you're not alone. Although the journeyman alto saxophonist has played in the bands of people like Frank Foster, Clark Terry, and Ruth Brown since the early '50s, he has only a few solo albums to his credit and none in the past twenty-five years. This outstanding new album on Mapleshade should, however, earn him some long overdue attention.

Hamiet Bluiett, the album's producer, calls Williams "the missing link between Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, and Charlie Parker." While that is surely an overstatement — for all his talents, Williams is not a remarkably original player — he does combine some of the best attributes of this trio of alto giants. Essentially a swing player with deep roots in the blues, Williams draws on Carter for his elegance and casual sophistication, and on Bird for his bluesiness and blazing speed.

Most of all, though, for the sheer beauty of his rich, languorous tone, he reminds me of Hodges. This is most evident on a handful of straight-out blues tunes, including two Williams originals and the Ellington / Hodges classic "Jeep's Blues." Williams plays the blues with great emotion and mines every note for its full dramatic impact. Here, as with Hodges, and tenor greats like Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, it is his sound that is key.

Williams receives excellent support from a veteran rhythm section including Keter Betts on bass, Jimmy Cobb on drums, Ed Cherry on guitar, and Larry Willis on piano. Although the song selection skews towards the too familiar — "Misty," "Round Midnight," "Lover Man," "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To" — this album is a fitting showcase for Williams' superb alto talents. Hopefully, we won't have to wait so long to hear from him again.


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