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Tom O'Hare & Gunther Fischer
Featuring
James Williams
Moodjazz cd 103

 
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The Mood Jazz website is the official website of Jazz Musicians Günther Fischer & Tom O'Hare.

Their latest album release is "Tom O Hare & Gunther Fischer Featuring James Williams" (Moodjazz cd 103)

Tom O'Hare and Gunther Fischer's previous CD, For John Lewis and the MJQ (Poppy 102) was a threnody honouring a great pianist who had died shortly before. This new album marks the passing of another major pianistic talent; yet its context is much sadder even if the music is suitably affirmative and indeed celebratory. For Lewis had not only reached the 'biblical mean' of three score years and ten: he had outstripped it by a full decade. But James Williams died from liver cancer on July 20, 2004 at the indecently early age of 53. He could be said to have been in his prime as a musician, composer & writer, and teacher of distinction, and the loss of a multi-talented man who, in the words of Downbeat's obituary, 'remained intent on expanding the jazz legacy,' will be sorely felt.

To strike a briefly personal note: I first became directly aware of Williams's quality when as a prentice jazz journalist I was sent his 1982 Arioso (Concord) for review. I knew him to be an ex-Jazz Messenger, and I also knew that the drummer Art Blakey didn't suffer even adequate pianists gladly: they had to be seriously good, or they were out. But this was the first time I'd heard his music on record, and I was captivated - by his instinctive and exuberant elan, fertile imagination, structural insight and sheer stamina. All that was confirmed by his Progress Report (Sunnyside) four years later, where he shone as soloist and leader, recalling the great Herbie Hancock in both roles.

From an early stage Williams was also a gifted teacher. In 1973 he secured an appointment at the Berklee College of Music, and although for a while this side of his life took second place to his dues-paying advancement as a player, by the 1980s he was equally active as educator and practitioner - teaching at the Hartt School of Music, conducting seminars at various US universities and the UK's Royal Academy of Music, acting as artist-in-residence at a number of institutions (including Harvard) and, later, becoming centrally involved with the International Association of Jazz Educators. Such varied expertise allied to his formidable intellect made it unsurprising that he also developed into an arranger of skill and imagination. He often favoured unusual ensembles - four pianos plus rhythm section, three saxophones ditto; even a jazz trio with the Boys Choir of Harlem and Diana Reeves. Perhaps his most audacious enterprise comprised two singers, sax and rhythm section conflating gospel forms with contemporary ones; it is the most poignant of ironies that this outfit was called Intensive Care Unit.

But it is, finally, as a pianist that Williams will be most remembered and feted; rightly so, too. As befits a top-notch educator, Williams was from the outset a voracious listener: he listened to everyone and learned from all. As noted, Hancock was clearly an influence, as were McCoy Tyner and fellow-Messengers and close friend Mulgrew Miller. But his greatest source of inspiration was unquestionably Phineas Newborn - which now seems as grimly poignant as the irony just mentioned. Newborn was not only an absolute virtuoso: he had great sensitivity and melodic guile, a rhythmic feel all his own, and a lightness of touch which almost all other pianists could only envy. As the incomparable Oscar Peterson once observed to me, 'Phineas had everything. Everything but luck' - and in the end the same held true for James Williams.

Williams's final artist-in-residence post was at the Cork Jazz Festival in 2003, where in addition to giving a piano recital and conducting or overseeing a host of workshops and master classes, he hooked up with O'Hare and Fischer for a series of concerts which are still talked about. This album is the natural follow-up to that triumph, and is a resplendent memorial to the man who in 1999 received the still-mighty accolade: Jazz Artist of the Year in the Critics' Poll conducted by Downbeat.

Many people reading these words will know how good the various O'Hare-Fischer groups have been and will continue to be, and those new to their multiple qualities might welcome the opportunity to make up their own minds as to what they most relish in the programme on offer. Below are some observations about what I consider particular highspots, along with information about the provenance of certain performances.

I first encountered Tom & Gunther's music when their March 2000 This One's For Milt Jackson came to me for review. Amongst all else I was impressed by their choice of material - catholic, enterprising, often unusual - and I was especially pleased by their proclivity for Jimmy Heath, who in his own fashion is as undersung a jazz writer as another unacknowledged heavyweight, Gerald Wilson. So I am particularly taken with A Sound for Sore Ears and Time and Place. The first features a sturdy line and considerable harmonic opportunity (as witness Williams's brooding, aptly Hancock-like chords) and the vigorous solo response of all concerned. The second is a splendidly no-nonsense work-out that allows everyone to show off their considerable chops but also their intuitive melodiousness and taste.

I have always been struck by Tom & Gunther's sensitive awareness that a beautiful line should not be messed with: just play the melody, or at most filigee it - don't deconstruct it in a smart-alec fashion, because that way you are the only loser. This programme preserves three such instances - Falling Grace, Velas and above all Thad Jones's A Child Is Born. The first opens with a bravura passage from Williams that exemplifies his Newborn inspiration; then everyone lets Steve Swallow's composition speak eloquently for itself. The other two tell the same subtly edifying story; Michael Hauser's solo on Jones's glorious ballad is (both geographically and emotionally) the heart of the performance.

Whatever you do, don't miss By Myself. This Dietz-Schwartz song is as arresting harmonically as melodically, and the arrangement is additionally distinguished for intriguing accents and stirringly varied rhythmic patters. Gunther's tenor is cogent and incisive, and the rhythm section's interplay and support is splendid. Finally, Tom transforms Milt Jackson's Hello from a ballad to a delicious 6/8 lope, and you might be ghoulishly intrigued to know that Lee Morgan's Helen's Ritual was named after his common-law wife who ended up shooting the great trumpeter in a New York night club. It is cheering that O'Hare and Fischer wanted to preserve his memory, and all the more so given the quality of their rendition. James Williams was not only a jazzman of rare talent but a musician of prodigious insight and acumen. Nothing can make up for his being taken from us so prematurely, but thanks to O'Hare and Fischer, we have an immediate - and aptly classy - memento of why he mattered and was so good.

Richard Palmer October, 2004

Richard Palmer has been a staff writer and reviewer for Jazz Journal International since the early 1980s. The author of over a dozen books, the latest of which is his his study of Sonny Rollins (Bayou Jazz Lives, Continuum; April, 2004), he was also Editor & Consultant to Oscar Peterson for the pianist's 2002 autobiography My Jazz Odyssey, and has since been engaged in a similar role by the distinguished Argentine pianist, arranger and composer Lalo Schifrin. With Dr. John White he co-edited Larkin's Jazz for Hull University Press, a Revised Edition of which will be published in 2005.

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