Live review | John Williams II: Proficiency and the art of patience

By Giovanni Russonello
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John Williams II Quartet
Twins Jazz
Wed., Aug. 25, 2010

At Twins Jazz on Wednesday night, two middle-aged men sitting near the front were getting grumpy. They’d been waiting for fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. Apparently, this pair had thought that in the jazz lexicon a “short break” means a short break. But none of that mattered when trumpeter John Williams II did return to the stage with his quartet for the last set of the night. The two men stopped groaning, stopped conversing. They were transfixed by the combo’s hard-charging, versatile bop.

With a fulsome tone and lyrical precision on the horn, Williams led an auspicious cast of younger musicians – including guitarist Samir Moulay, Blake Meister on bass and drummer Warren “Trae” Crudup III – who paid close attention to the music’s roots while leaning hard in the direction of new ideas.

The space between the audience and the stage seemed to shrink just slightly when the group set into guitarist Samir Moulay’s composition, “Doka’s Romance,” whose enigmatic melody rose and fell like the slow breaths of a meditation. Appropriate that Moulay had dedicated the piece to seminal saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who, besides having helped pioneer the modal-jazz idiom with which “Doka’s Romance” was toying, is a deeply spiritual Nichiren Buddhist. (It was also Shorter’s birthday on Wednesday.)

Williams and Elijah Balbed, sitting in on tenor saxophone, carried the theme as if it were weightless, while Moulay added soulful color underneath before whipping off a crackling solo. The band kept “Doka’s Romance” more or less on one dynamic plane and maintained a fairly straight rhythmic feel throughout, but the tune’s stirring melody and the unanswered questions posed by each soloist kept the performance fresh.

For the final performance of the night, Williams called Sonny Stitt’s “The Eternal Triangle” and welcomed two fellow D.C. trumpeters to the bandstand, Joe Herrera and Joe Brotherton. Williams played a gracious host, taking a quick, one-chorus solo before turning things over to Herrera. The guest trumpeter had elected to stay off the crowded stage, so he raised his 6’4” frame from the second-row chair where he had been sitting and issued forth a rousing, declaratory solo. Then he sat right back down.

But it was pianist Hope Udobi, also sitting in, who made the greatest impression. He sailed up the keyboard in inside-out runs, and inflected a light dose of churchy swing into his licks here and there; his statements were enthusiastic but deliberate, and he wisely knew when to leave tension-building space between phrases.

The crowd at Twins, whether chowing down or just listening, responded mightily to Williams’ group – which was rounded out by Crudup’s hard-driving swing and the precise but inquisitive playing of Meister on bass.

By the end of the night, suffice it to say, the two men sitting at their table by the stage had gotten their education – from a younger generation.

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