The music of pianist James Williams never ceases to amaze me not only for its sheer majestic and profound clarity, but also for how under-celebrated it is compared to many of his contemporaries. On Awesome! he joins forces with two legends-drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Ray Brown-and delivers a thoroughly engaging set of originals. And while the new record unfortunately doesn't highlight Williams' gorgeous compositions, it delightfully illustrates why Williams is one of the most brilliant interpreters on the current jazz scene.
A lot of Williams' magic comes from the tremendous amount of ease with which he imbues his playing. Despite his impeccable rhythmic flair, Williams often has a lazy manner to his improvisations, which are apt for bluesy ballads and mid-tempo compositions. His rendition of Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" gleams brightly as Williams crisply articulates the melody, then gracefully improvises on it. As sensitively as Williams approaches "Sophisticated Lady," he usually produces a broad warm sound that betrays his Phineas Newborn influences. On the old gospel hymn "Go Tell It on the Mountain," Williams evokes the soulful yearns on the Old South, while his improvisations give more of a Northern urbane finesse. He burrows deep into the blues on Sonny Rollins' "Sonnymoon for Two," which also features a nicely paced solo from Brown.
Jones is atypically quiet on this set, but no less essential. Those who only view Jones as a powerhouse drummer may be surprised at the delicacy that drives songs like Thad Jones' "Quietude" and Rube Bloom's "Give Me the Simple Life." Even on the more sizzling moments, like Mary Lou Williams' "Lonely Moments," Jones demonstrates a rare restraint that's utterly sensational. But ultimately, it's Williams' magnificent improvisations that take center stage on Awesome!