Drummer-bandleader Willie Jones lll has always impressed as a supremely-skilled, thoughtful craftsman at the traps, someone versatile and comfortable enough to work practically any bandstand fortunate enough to have his skills – from singers to big band and all manner of small group opportunities. In that respect he reminds me of such other flexible fliers as Billy Higgins and more recently Lewis Nash; those drummers whose presence enhances any setting they’re called upon to perform, and are a welcome presence as soon as you walk in the venue and spot who’s at the tubs.
The son of pianist Willie Jones ll, Willie the 3rd came up in Southern California and was doubtless influenced by Smilin’ Billy Higgins and his World Stage operation, which was one of those classic musicians do-for-self operations that would surely inspire a self-starting young musician with ideas… like Willie lll. He attended Cal Arts on scholarship and later co-founded an unfortunately short-lived, sorta Young Lions West ensemble known as Black Note. After relocating in New York he quickly became Roy Hargrove‘s drummer of choice among many other opportunities.
Most recently Willie Jones lll has been piloting his own sextet. Their most recent recording is Willie Jones lll Sextet Plays the Max Roach Songbook, on Willie’s own label imprint. I was intrigued by a drummer answering the call of addressing the music of one of the titans of his instrument, Max Roach. Clearly a few questions were in order.
What are the challenges a contemporary artist like yourself faces in endeavoring to pay homage to a giant of your own instrument?
Paying tribute to Max Roach on record was something I thought about doing for awhile. The engagement at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola provided the opportunity. One of the challenges was expressing my own voice through the music without sounding like I’m copying Max.
This recording stems from one night out of that week at Dizzy’s. I picked what I thought would be the best songs for the CD.
You’ve chosen a broad range of pieces from Max’s history. Given how deep Max’s musical life was, how did you go about selecting which tunes you thought best represented Roach’s history?
My favorite period of Max’s career are the mid 50s – the Clifford Brown – Max Roach band – to the late 60s when his band featured Gary Bartz and Charles Tolliver. All the music I chose are from those periods.
You’ve got the always tasteful Eric Reed on piano, despite the fact that pretty much over the last 30 or so years of his recording and performing career Max chose to perform in quartet with no piano. What does Eric bring to these pieces and why did you choose to use piano in the ensemble?
As my favorite periods of Max’s music featured piano, Eric, one of my favorite pianists, was the ideal choice to interpret this music.
This record has come out on your own imprint. What was your original intention in establishing your own label and have you found it a more accommodating situation for yourself than being part of someone else’s label?
I’ve always placed great importance in having ownership of my music – not only my compositions, but having control over how my music is distributed, owning my masters, etc. That Max Roach along with Charles Mingus started their own label, Debut Records, in the early 50s hugely influenced me.
Self releasing is a more accommodating situation as I have more control over how the music is presented. I have final say on the personnel and much more.
Catch up with Willie Jones lll’s activities at www.williejones3.com.