C.I. WILLIAMS QUINTET:
When Alto Was King
C.I.s alto sound is warm and intimate. He combines the huge sweet tone of Johnny Hodges with Benny Carters edge and Charlie Parkers raw speed and bluesiness. Cadence says he can either play a blues that would silence a room, or turn on the jets for an old fashioned bop barnstormer. C.I. could also make his horn whisper with gentle drama his breathy Misty is unbelievably powerful and spiritual. The rhythm section is best described as The Circle of Elders: Jimmy Cobb on drums, Keter Betts on bass, and Larry Willis on pianoplus Ed Cherry on guitar. They swing past Avalon, bop through Ill Close My Eyes and stomp new life into Round Midnight. The last and best recording of one of the all-time masters of the alto sax. (#04532)
Jazziz - Traditions:
To ensure that, session producer Bluiett (who has kept track of Williams since the '50s) hired bassist Keter Betts and drummer Jimmy Cobb, whose respective rŽsumŽs include a substantial telling of middle-period jazz history. So, amid bass-drum kicks with an oomph that you rarely hear anymore, and deep, rich, tugging bass lines, Williams' also sings its way into the heart of 11 well-plotted selections. On well-worn tunes like Round Midnight and Lover Man, Williams' filmy tone and subtle vibrato is charming and utterly convincing. Better still are the saxophonist's originals, all of which bear a relentless bluesiness, without dipping into tried-and-true riffs.
Yet another chapter in Hamiet Bluiett's Explorations series of productions, which often seek to set the record straight on what the outspoken bari man views as under-recognized artists, this date by C. I. Williams goes a distance in doing just that for a neglected master of the alto sax. Mr. Williams has a buttery tone that is delivered with authority and the veteran's sense of relaxed swing. His tone bending, for example, is done very subtly and with a knowingness that never announces the arrival of the next bended note. He plays it with a liquidity and fluid sense of phrasing that makes every piece a study in elegance. The evidence starts right from the opening gate, traveling through his storytelling blues Punkin' Juice; he literally owns Jeep's Blues and check his gorgeous opening cadenza on I'll Close My Eyes. Avalon is delivered in duo with C. I.'s contemporary Keter Betts on bass, and Precious Lord is stripped to the bare alto essentials. Accompaniment also includes pianists Larry Willis and Donald Blackman, drummer Jimmy Cobb, and guitarist Ed Cherry.
The notoriety surrounding C.I. Williams is that of a musician's musician, known and respected by fellow players but overlooked by the music press. Hamiet Bluiett has attempted to remedy the situation, for, as curator for Mapleshade, he handpicked the lineup on the recording. Demanding immediate attention is Williams' tone and phrasing, fitting comfortably between the styles of John Handy and Johnny Hodges, meaning he can either play a blues that would silence a room, or turn on the jets for an old fashioned bop barnstormer. Not coincidentally, Williams turns Hodges' staple Jeep's Blues into a wanton blues, complete with a cocky swagger in his phrasing. Williams also sounds equally at home on the upbeat swingers such as his own danceable blues Catfish Sammich, where the leader dryly uncoils some fluid lines, or the first four minutes of Round Midnight, which spotlights the intricate duo of Willis' reflective piano and Williams' stellar vibrato. Most moving is, perhaps, the solo alto Precious Lord, where Williams' career is densely packed into three minutes. Capturing the soul of the altoist with his heartfelt cries and exclamations echoing the human voice, the final tune seems to be saying "and to think, you've passed me by all of these years."
All About Jazz:
If you don't know the name C.I. Williams, you're not alone. Although the journeyman alto saxophonist has played in the bands of people like Frank Foster, Clark Terry, and Ruth Brown since the early '50s, he has only a few solo albums to his credit and none in the past twenty-five years. This outstanding new album on Mapleshade should, however, earn him some long overdue attention.
Hamiet Bluiett, the album's producer, calls Williams “the missing link between Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, and Charlie Parker.” While that is surely an overstatement — for all his talents, Williams is not a remarkably original player — he does combine some of the best attributes of this trio of alto giants. Essentially a swing player with deep roots in the blues, Williams draws on Carter for his elegance and casual sophistication, and on Bird for his bluesiness and blazing speed.
Most of all, though, for the sheer beauty of his rich, languorous tone, he reminds me of Hodges. This is most evident on a handful of straight-out blues tunes, including two Williams originals and the Ellington / Hodges classic “Jeep's Blues.” Williams plays the blues with great emotion and mines every note for its full dramatic impact. Here, as with Hodges, and tenor greats like Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, it is his sound that is key.
Williams receives excellent support from a veteran rhythm section including Keter Betts on bass, Jimmy Cobb on drums, Ed Cherry on guitar, and Larry Willis on piano. Although the song selection skews towards the too familiar — “Misty,” “Round Midnight,” “Lover Man,” “You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To” — this album is a fitting showcase for Williams' superb alto talents. Hopefully, we won't have to wait so long to hear from him again.