Mike Williams’ Sama

Mike Williams at the CBSO Centre (Photo © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk)

Mike Williams at the CBSO Centre (Photo © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk)

CBSO Centre, Birmingham UK

Jazzlines, Birmingham’s premier jazz producers, opened their 2015 season with real aplomb and a project long overdue: a commission for new music from the saxophonist, composer and, perhaps most importantly, teacher, Mike Williams.

Williams has been a tutor on Birmingham Conservatoire’s jazz course since its inception in 1999, and his deep dedication to both jazz and Sufism has had a marked effect on many of the students who have studied there. What struck me not long into this evening of new music for a horns-dominated octet was that this was a rare chance to hear the spring, the font if you like, tributaries and streams of which we have become more familiar through the more active gigging of Mike’s students. (I’m not saying they all sound like him or that their music is modelled on his; just that his influence has been a strong one, in a more general ethos certainly, and sometimes in a harmonic way, perhaps.)

What Williams had chosen to do with this commission is a mark of the man: the music was a melding of “my personal experience within ‘Sufism’ to the reverence and love we all have for the great musicians in the jazz tradition”, and the musicians he had chosen to make it with were, with one exception, close colleagues and students from the Conservatoire, those he has shared his time and working life with in Birmingham.

So, with Williams on alto were Percy Pursglove on trumpet, Jeremy Price on trombone, Chris Maddock on baritone, Alex Merritt on tenor, Gareth Fowler on guitar, James Banner on double bass and Troy Miller on drums (Miller is the non-Conservatoire musician, but Williams had worked closely with him in the ’90s). On stage their leader was as enthusiastic of their talents as he was modest of his own – another mark of the man.

In programme notes Williams says the music references at different times: Herbie Hancock, Brazilian bassist Ricardo Dos Santos, South African pianist Bheki Mseleku, John Coltrane, Kenny Wheeler, John Taylor, Bill Evans, Mulgrew Miller, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Cedar Walton and Miles Davis.

What it sounds like is singularly Mike Williams. He says most of the pieces were composed at the piano, and it felt to me as if his five-piece front line was often acting like the different fingers of a pianist. So we had rich and complex melodies and harmonies shared by the horns, sometimes two joining in a harmony phrase, sometimes all five interweaving in melody and countermelody, the lead line and supporting harmonies or counter phrases constantly handed back and forth between the instruments. It was not far from big band horn chart writing, but strikingly different. I’m not sure I have ever heard quite the same idea in any other jazz band.

There were solos, of course, and the other horns would add a supporting riff or line after a time, before leaving it to the soloist once more. Again, like big band writing but, again, not quite. Because the supporting horns would be playing more complex lines and would be of the same strength as the soloist, far from it being a jazz band backing riff it was more like the more egalitarian, communal music making of African traditional music, for example.

Miller, Banner and Fowler gave the horns a supple, endlessly morphing sea of beat and rhythm on which to sail, even suggesting a subtle reggae at one point.

Of the soloists I most enjoyed Pursglove, Price and Maddock, all of whom seem to me to tell stories in melody, stories that conveyed the thrill of the moment and the deep pleasure of soaring in song. I had difficulty with the improvisations of Merritt and, oddly, Williams himself. It seemed to me that both were probably doing really interesting things with harmony – and certainly they were attracting appreciative nods from the musicians around me and within the band itself – but to me their improvisations sounded  same-y and like academic exercises which were going over my head.

In the end, though, what is important is what the music and the performance felt like overall. And it felt brimful of joyful warmth, generosity, deep love and gentle understanding. What more could one ask? I’m sure I’m not the only one who left the CBSO Centre feeling enriched,  inspired and in some inexplicable way blessed.

Categories: Live review

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