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November 2008

Whit Williams
“Now’s the Time” Big Band Featuring Slide Hampton and Jimmy Heath
MAMA Records

It is no doubt true, as Washington, D.C., jazz DJ Rusty Hassan writes in his liner notes to this album, that the U.S. is full of great regional musicians “who would have been even more famous had [they] moved to New York, but for reasons of family considerations decided to remain” in their hometowns. It is probably also true that, to justify recording these musicians, it is necessary to match them with other great musicians who did move to New York and become even more famous. Such is the case here, as veteran bandleader and reed player Whit Williams, a Baltimore fixture, is teamed up with Slide Hampton and Jimmy Heath.

Although Williams names his big band (17 pieces including four trumpets, four trombones and six saxophones, plus rhythm section) after the Charlie Parker standard, his musical approach is closer to the traditional swing of Ellington and Basie than bebop. The disc is essentially divided between the featured players, Heath writing or arranging and playing on the first half, Hampton on the second.

Heath’s familiar tenor takes the lead right at the start of his “This Is What It Is,” beginning the album, and he is especially expressive on his ballad “Losing Game.” Hampton’s major ballad statement on trombone comes with “The Radiator Man Is Well,” a tune written by Williams. Although not given prominent billing, two other guests make notable contributions. Charlie Young’s alto leads another Williams tune, “I Remember Tangle,” before giving way to tenorist Gary Thomas, who also plays an excellent flute solo on Hampton’s “A Day in Copenhagen.”

Among the regular members of the band, Don Junker takes a high-pitched trumpet solo on Thelonious Monk’s “Little Rootie Tootie,” which closes the disc, and, following Williams’ free-jazz-influenced “Get Home Before Dark,” helps bring the musical style into the ’60s. Williams’ own contributions as a player are not clear (Hassan writes that he solos on various reeds, though it’s hard to tell where), but he makes enough of an impression as a composer and leader to justify the notion that he would have been better known if he hadn’t preferred to stay close to home.

Originally published in November 2008
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