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Willie Jones III Sextet at Jazz Alley

Willie Jones III Sextet at Jazz Alley

Courtesy Lisa Hagen Glynn

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Jones is a master of the form and a bandleader of note with a great sense of dynamic balance within his band.
Willie Jones III Sextet
Jazz Alley
Seattle, WA
April 30, 2024

Arriving early to a club performance can give one perspective on what is about to take place. On a Tuesday evening in Seattle, with but a few patrons in the club among the hustle-and-bustle of house staff preparing for the evening, the set-up on stage was a prologue of the story that was to be told over a two-hour set. In particular, the drum kit awaiting bandleader Willie Jones III stood out in its simplicity—a standard jazz set up with two cymbals, one being a smaller crash. It presented so many possibilities for this drummer / bandleader known for his commitment to groove, whose keen awareness of melody, changes and form is spoken with sublime and intricate simplicity. So it would be for this iteration of the Willie Jones III Sextet, a band driven impeccably by Jones and bassist Gerald Cannon.

Jones led a quintet through the first hour plus, joined in the rhythm section by Cannon and Los Angeles-based, Portland-raised pianist Sam Hirsh. Long-time Roy Hargrove alto saxophonist Justin Robinson served as the senior member of the front line with another rising trumpet star in Giveton Gelin.

From the first tune of a set that included compositions from such diverse sources as George Gershwin, Buster Williams and Gary Bartz, Jones was the center of activity. He played with great elegance and ease, presenting glimpses into the style of Max Roach, all the while fully immersed in the groove and sublime excellence of his cadence and color. The intricacies of his playing were given a solid harmonic partnership with Hirsh's chordal magic and Cannon's strong, resonant bass line. The band bounced from a drum feature to a swinging blues, with each member of the band contributing solos with their own original sense of decor. The music was straight ahead, veritably defining the style with virtuosity and most importantly, feeling that draws from the well of blues and swing.

Yet something changed with the jumpy intro to the Bartz composition, "Libra." The band found a perfect space to take off to another level altogether, one that seemed to find a stronger connection. With the Jones / Cannon connection leading the way, solos by Robinson and Gelin engaged the audience and brought new life to the generous gathering. The volume level of the band was lower than usual at Jazz Alley. Both Robinson and Gelin seemed to eschew the microphone in exchange for acoustic resonance, with the band listening and reacting. The young trumpeter Gelin at one point leaned back, his horn pointed upward, and filled the four hundred-seat room with sounds both tender and torrid. "Libra" also seemed to turn on a switch for Hirsh, who played between the rhythm section and frontline sparingly before a solo decorated with his keen sense of harmony.

It was a delight to watch Gelin on the front line with Robinson, witnessing the veteran's dynamic sense, his fluctuations in volume, mood and feeling. Seattle jazz fans had witnessed Robinson's playing alongside Roy Hargrove at Jazz Alley—an annual week-long run that took place every December. It was satisfying to witness first hand how the music and its tradition that embraces innovation moves forward, with brilliant young talent stepping up and joining the movement. The tradition in transition.

Robinson was featured on an interpretation of "Embraceable You," in ballad mode. He has always had an affinity for ballads, and this was no exception. Ballads tend to tell you more about a musician's soul than anything, in this case revealing tenderness and introspection. While I generally care more about the player than the horn, Robinson used the dynamic range of the alto to create a mood of contemplative vulnerability. As was the case throughout the evening, Jones and Cannon were the current that gave energy to everything on stage.

Vocalist Christie Dashiell joined and completed the sextet. When the on-the-rise singer launched into "Bye Bye Blackbird," I immediately had concerns about the overall welfare of the set, particularly concerning the set list. The selection seemed to be out of step with the more ecclectic nature of previous tunes. In seeing and hearing Dashiell for the first time, the quality of her instrument was clearly high, and her execution flawless. Her solo without lyrics was articulated beautifully. Gelin, for his part, did not deliver the pensive, Miles driven solo one might expect from the mood generated by Dashiell. He delivered in attack mode, with nothing but pure fire. The band in swing mode, sent a clear message that, "It's not the tune, it's the messengers that deliver it."

An interpretation of Michael Jackson's "Human Nature '' didn't seem to fit the vibe of the room, or be in any way hipped to the rest of the evening setlist. It was the only tune that didn't allow the band to swing in any manner. Nonetheless, Dashiell made a soulful recovery with her delve into Gerschwin's "But Not For Me." Beginning in duo with Cannon, Dashiell delivered with great feeling. It was the moment that revealed her true artistry, that allowed her technical brilliance to be liberated by the tune and her bandmates. Cannon's solo reminded us all of the great pleasure it has been to see artists of his magnitude on the stage at Jazz Alley over decades of time. Dashiell delivered the final verse in sublime fashion, and essentially won over the room in warm embrace. Her Donny Hathaway inspired version of "For All We Know" brought out her dynamic range, and was a notably good choice for this young singer we surely will hear much from down the road.

This band, in a way, is an embarrassment of riches—not a bad problem for a group to maneuver through. During the vocal portion of the performance, there was little time for solos from Robinson and Gelin, again, per abundance of talent. However, prior to Dashiell's entrance, the band had played nearly ninety minutes, a standard set at Jazz Alley. The vocal portion of the show was thirty minutes or so, giving the audience a generous portion of the entire band.

In essence, it was a pleasure to see a band of musicians that understand how their individual voices lend to innovation in the moment within a great tradition. Jones is a master of the form and a bandleader of note with a great sense of dynamic balance within his band.

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