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by Lee Tomboulian
James Williams, the pianist, was in Little Rock last week, performed for about fifty people at the Oyster Bar, gave a master class for two students, and returned to New York via Memphis, his old stomping grounds.
That doesn't begin to convey the flowers he tossed out through his playing, to paraphrase Miles Davis.
Mr. Williams hails from the Memphis group of pianists, spearheaded by the late master, Phineas Newborn, Jr. and the great Charles Thomas, whom you can hear play at the Atrium of the Holiday Inn West from 5-9 most days.
In this era of self-proclaimed genius, Mr. Williams chose to acknowledge Mr. Thomas' influence on him, and to lift him up, even. The humility and self-confidence it takes to invite your teacher to perform on your set must be tremendous. This was no mere gesture to charm the locals: Mr. Williams mentions the older man as an influence in interviews, and several years ago, invited Mr. Thomas to play with him at Carnegie Hall, with two other pianists, under the name "James Williams' World of Piano."
To compare the two men's divergent styles might be helpful at this point. Mr. Thomas' style seems to be sort of bi-polar, with fast, single-note bop lines at one pole and lush harmonic balladry at the other, and when they meet in the middle it is with great elegance. Mr. Williams is more likely to get florid anytime, delighting in McCoy Tynerish waves and splashes of color. It's obvious that he hates for a lovely ballad to end, by the way he keeps adding little postscripts. His is more of a Lisztian, Romantic approach, getting carried away and carrying you away, too, whereas Mr. Thomas, like Mozart, is never out of control, even under emotional stress. Both of them are lovers of fine pianistic filligree, much as their mentor was, the afore-mentioned Mr. Newborn.
Mr. Thomas, being the older of the two, has had longer to edit his playing, so that when you hear him, you hear mostly the result of his experimentation. Mr. Williams is more likely to play everything he hears, without editing so much. This can result in some excessive playing, yet hey, I'd love to overplay that well, you know?
Eclecticism seems not to be a problem to Mr. Williams, as his playing sometimes sounds like a postmodern quilt of influences. Yet it's never done to be ironic, but more like, it's as if he's saying, "Isn't McCoy wonderful.....wasn't that Coltrane record great." And his gospel playing?
Not a cutesy imitation.....genuine Sanctified playing from his growing up in a Memphis church. This means that the juxtaposition of the Duke's lovely "Single Petal of a Rose " with "Gee, Baby, Ain't I Good to You" done in a slow gospel 6/8 had some resonance, some roots in common. It's all grist for his mill, and even when bassist Joe Vick had an uncharacteristically bad night, the mill was grinding, thanks to the forceful Brian Brown on drums.
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