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Jeff Williams:
An American Jazzman In London
by Robin Kidson



A feature of the current British jazz scene is the number of American jazz musicians who have chosen to base themselves here. One of these US expats is Jeff Williams, drummer and composer, originally from Oberlin, Ohio, but now based, at least for part of the time, in London. In a stellar career, stretching back over 40 years, he has worked with some of the jazz greats including Stan Getz, Lee Konitz, Paul Bley and Joe Lovano. In the 1970s, he was in the band Lookout Farm with Dave Liebman.


Williams established a base in London after marrying novelist Lionel Shriver in 2003. “She had been living in the UK for many Jeff Williamsyears”, he explained to me, “and I was unable to convince her to return to the US full time. Shortly thereafter her most well known novel We Need to Talk About Kevin became a best seller and that really settled things as her UK profile surged. We both treasure New York as well and I’m back and forth quite a lot to our place in Brooklyn.”

Once in London, Williams quickly began playing gigs with British jazz musicians and teaching at the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. He also formed a fruitful relationship with Whirlwind Recordings, the British record label owned by another US expat, Michael Janisch. Whirlwind has released three critically acclaimed Jeff Williams albums: Another Time, which came out in 2011, The Listener (2013), and Outlier (2016). A fourth, Lifelike, is due for release on 20th April 2018.

Like The Listener, Lifelike was recorded live at The Vortex Jazz Club in London. Williams leads a band made up of Kit Downes (piano), Josh Arcoleo (tenor saxophone), Sam Lasserson (double bass), John O’Gallagher (alto saxophone) and Goncalo Marquez (trumpet). Downes, Arcoleo and Lasserson played on Outlier along with Phil Robson on guitar. O’Gallagher is another American, over in England to study for a doctorate at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Marquez is a Portuguese musician who Williams met when playing some dates in Portugal last year.

The sort of Anglo-American co-operative working exemplified by Jeff Williams’ band is becoming increasingly common. That co-operation is on a much more equal basis than in the past – the inferiority complex from which British jazz once suffered in relation to American jazz has long gone. It is interesting, though, that Williams feels there are still obstacles to this sort of joint work: “I wish it were easier to have exchanges between both countries but work permits and other obstacles tend to prevent what could be quite fruitful.” 


I asked Jeff Williams what he saw as the differences between the UK and US jazz scenes and his reply was interesting:

“…with the exception of Ronnie Scott’s and Pizza Express, London’s jazz scene is really spread out. Whereas in New York many of Jeff Williams Lifelike albumthe clubs…in Greenwich Village are all within walking distance. That makes it easy to see more than a single show a night, or to perform in more than one. Outside of New York, jazz gigs are few and far between. Most of the circuit of 6 night-a-week clubs that once made touring possible, at least from one major city to another, are long gone. In the UK, various jazz organisations have managed to keep going and there is a circuit still in place, and, it being a smaller country, it’s even possible to leave London for a gig and return the same evening, eliminating the cost of accommodation. These UK jazz societies especially cater to older jazz listeners, whom the promoters and audience members tend to be. You don’t often see people of advanced age in New York clubs."

"What both New York and London have in common is a wealth of fine musicians, particularly young ones. They form organisations too and that has led to venues like the Con Cellar and others presenting jazz in various pubs around London. In New York, Brooklyn is quite vital in this regard with a number of small venues, such as Barbes. London is a smaller scene but the energy is much the same and the musicianship very high….Both places have many more musicians than gigs, though, and, both being expensive cities, survival from just playing music in either is daunting.”



Although Jeff Williams is chiefly noted for his drumming, his considerable skills as a composer should not be overlooked. Most of the tracks on his Whirlwind albums have been written by him – of the seven tracks on Lifelike, for example, six are Williams originals (the seventh, Cancao do Amolador, is Jeff Williams Lifelike bandcontributed by Goncalo Marquez). His compositions are often quite complex but all are absorbing and memorable. He also unselfishly leaves plenty of room for the soloists to shine – and all of his band are superb virtuosic musicians with not only technical ability in spades but imagination and passion.

The unselfishness also applies to his drumming style – there are no lengthy drum solos on Lifelike and, in general, he is content to be the guiding spirit more or less in the background. However, he does more than just keep time and he is able, with brush, stick, hand, cymbal and drum, to create the most wonderful soundscapes full of different textures and rhythms.

On his style, Jeff Williams says: “I have absorbed my influences and taken what suits my overall concept so I think I have a distinct identity at the drums. At this point, playing is like talking for me. I don’t spend a lot of time premeditating what I’m going to play anymore. It just seems to come out without effort because my attention is fully engaged in the music at hand at all times. Developing unwavering attention may be the most important aspect. That may be easier for me now at this age because I care less about what anyone else thinks of my playing. Worrying about that doesn’t make you sound better.”



Comparing the music of the albums Outlier and the more recent Lifelike, this video is of a live performance of New And Old from Outlier ....







and here is a video of Dream Visitor from Lifelike:




Click here to sample the album Lifelike : Click here for details of Lifelike from Whirlwind : Click here for Jeff William's website.

Lifelike is being formally launched at the Vortex in Dalston, London on 3rd April 2018. The band is then touring – dates are:

6th April: The Verdict, Brighton
12th April: East Side Jazz Club, Birmingham
26th April: Old Town Hall Cellar, Hemel Hempstead
14th June: Cambridge Jazz
15th June: Harrow Arts Centre


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