“That one was about airport security” said Jeff Williams as the band juddered to a halt. A spooky, stuttering swing had built to a frenzy, with Phil Robson’s guitar blurting zig-zagging runs in a wildly distorted synth voice whilst Williams lashed his drums. Airport Security; it all made sense. This quintet’s off-beat vibe reflect the oddities in everyday life that provide inspiration for the drummer leader’s compositions. There’s no shouting, just a quiet intensity that draws the listener in before wrongfooting with a swerve or surprise burst of energy. Williams is all colour and nudging, no spelling out the obvious. The caress of his sticks makes the kit an orchestra. On Hermeto, named for the Brazilian composer, a rattle of the cymbal doubles the rhythm of the melody whilst a tap on the tom ghosts the guitar’s accompanying stabs and Sam Lasserson’s propulsive bass figure gets a helping prod from a click on the snare. Wonky bossas, twisted calypsos, loose limbed swing; Williams’ writing, all sidelong glances at familiar forms gives this band plenty to work on. Josh Arcoleo’s tenor nods at absent from this year’s festival, Sonny Rollins, in fullness of tone and inventive routes through angular harmony. Finn Peters, switching between alto and flute, repeatedly pulled out fiery impassioned solos. Williams left the stage for ‘Lament’, a hold your breath, haunting hymn in memory of a gone too soon friend; he returned to Arcoleo taking the tune out with long notes and hoarse cries on tenor and whipped up a storm on the drums. Not so much a crescendo as a howl of anguish. A treasure of a group, a gem of a gig.
Jeff Williams, American drummer and part time Londoner with a CV that stretches back to the 70s and includes stints with Stan Getz and Dave Liebman was at Cheltenham with his New York Quartet. This seemed like a deliciously contrasting gig to the earlier John Taylor one when we booked the tickets and to Lighthouse the following day which whilst back on mainly European territory seemed like another flavour again (Gwylim Simock’s piano meets Tim Garland’s sax to joust with percussionist Asaf Sirkis). If we’d had to lay bets as to which gigs we’d be humming the tunes to as we skipped down the street afterwards, I’m not sure it would be have been Jeff Williams’ group. The slightly smokey atmosphere on stage might have drifted on with the band from the streets of New York and Jeff’s trilby and shades seemed like a slightly tongue in cheek nod to the urban vibe. The alto sax, trumpet, bass and drums delivered a series of catchy themes, some more angular, some boppish with changes of pace and stops and starts a-plenty. Fez had an arabic souk hint to it and it was trumpet player Duane Eubanks’ Purple Blue and Red that we were humming as we left. Its the approach of the band that’s stayed with me. They frequently seemed to stop and listen to each other so that there was often only one or two instruments playing – it didn’t seemed to matter, just added to the sense of a joint exploration of some ideas. Jeff Williams has assembled a group of sympathetic voyagers. His drumming is like this, as striking and interesting for what he’s not playing as what he is, even when he’s playing time you can feel the pulse more in what he’s not playing.
Lighthouse by contrast play a lot. There’s plenty of words like breathtaking and dazzling in the press to describe this trio, all richly deserved. Whether its the exuberant vibe and rich harmony wrapped around the simple pentatonic scale of the Hang drum, the slightly bonkers frenetic clubby rhythm of Ibiza scene inspired Space Junk, the excursions into folky pastoral jazz ballads or thunderous soloing on pieces based on flamenco like grooves, its quite simply exhilarating. Tim Garland and Gwylim Simcock lock seamlessly on intricate themes with Sirkis grinning delightedly following them through every rhythmic swerve. The virtuosity was unforced, I sat back, tapped my foot (there was no dancing in the seating for sardines) and whooped as the pyrotechnics proceeded. We weren’t humming many of the themes after this one, but I was musing on another little insight of the festival; that Gwylim Simcock has a funky left hand. For all the torrent of notes and lyrical lines, he was very funky.