HON / Beryl; Skardu’s Missing; 06/01/14; Rotten Apple Boughs; Mugs; Retrogressive Shredfest; Slumps; Hon (Huw V Williams) / Laura Jurd, tp; Alam Nathoo, t-sax; Elliot Galvin, vib (on Mugs)/organ (on Hon)/acc/pn; Huw V Williams, bs; Pete Ibbetson, dm. / Glyn (Williams) / Huw Warren, pn; Williams, bs; Jim Black, dm. / Chaos Collection CC005. Available at Bandcamp, iTunes and Amazon or directly from the artist at his website https://huwvwilliams.wordpress.com
This is the first CD by Huw V Williams, a young bassist-composer from Bangor, North Wales. Williams won the 2012 Yamaha Jazz Scholars Prize from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and has since made a name for himself playing in London, Brooklyn and Manhattan. Fellow Welsh musicians join him on this excursion, in which I hear influences of several jazz styles ranging from Charles Mingus to Arthur Blythe, with several stops in between.
Williams explains that “The word Hon means This in Welsh. I got the idea for the name from a poem by T.H. Parry Williams. The poem is about a love hate relationship with Wales, and I feel that in myself; Wales is my roots and my family, but its like you have to leave Wales to fulfill yourself.” Judging from this first outing, he is well on his way to doing just that. Each of the eight studio tracks is a carefully crafted gem, using contrasting moods and tempos with a variety of sound colors behind and around him. The stylistic versatility of his bandmates adds to this versatility, particularly in the odd use of an accordion on several tracks.
The brief, lyrical opening piece, Beryl, is a deception. This sounds as if it is going to be an album of relaxed jazz in the early Miles Davis mold, but it turns out to be anything but; in the very next track, Skardu’s Missing, the band kicks into second gear and takes off on a wild, wacky ride. Here is a piece in D minor that sounds very much, to me, like one of Willem Breuker’s quasi-latin-jazz-march pieces written for his Kollektief, and Williams’ little band jumps into it with much the same enthusiasm, reveling in those odd little luftpausen here and there that tease the ear, doubling back on snippets of the theme in such a way that they sound like a tape loop. At this point, it sounds as if Galvin has double-tracked himself, as one clearly hears a piano with strings being plucked in the background against an accordion solo. Jurd’s beautiful tone and wild musical imagination are up next, occasionally overblowing her instrument purposely as the “tack piano” effect continues in the background (by golly, it does sound like a tape loop!). Nathoo then picks up the theme on tenor sax while Jurd continues to deconstruct it, eventually playing only fragments until, eventually, the tempo begins to slow down in a bizarre sort of stutter-stop manner until the whole thing just ends on an unresolved note.
The next track was a bit of a mystery title for me originally. It is listed on the back of the CD cover (see illustration), and mentioned in Adrian Pallant’s online review (https://ap-reviews.com/2016/02/29/hon-huw-v-williams/) as 06/01/14, but listed on YouTube and in John Fordham’s review in The Guardian as 77806. Williams himself e-mailed me to explain that the former title is the correct one, and that he is currently checking with the distributor to see if they can fix it online. The music itself is much more outré than the preceding tracks, in fact one of the most free-form things on the album. It almost sounds like Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz; I might even subtitle it Free Jazz, Jr. Even when a more “regular” pulse eventually arrives, it doesn’t remain really steady, but continues to fluctuate in a fluid manner—and once again, we hear that odd, piped-in sound of someone playing the strings of a piano with one’s fingers and, here and here, with light mallets. One of the more interesting things about this album is that, unlike Mingus’ bands, Williams is always audible but does not dominate the proceedings. In fact, he seems to take the position that his role is that of underpinning. As the composer of each piece, he clearly knows the structure from the ground up, but he steps back and allows the others to work in the foreground. Here Galvin switches to regular piano for his solo, but the odd tack-piano sound continues to weave its way along the right channel, providing a sort of surrealistic counterpoint to the proceedings. Nathoo’s sax solo here is a bevy of squawks and overblown notes, and once again it almost sounds as if the piece wraps up hurriedly.
Rotten Apple Boughs deceives the ear by beginning in a gentle, lyrical mood, sounding like a variant on Beryl (and perhaps it is), before moving into a theme reminiscent of Ornette’s Lonely Woman. More high-pitched trumpet squawks from Jurd interject themselves here as the piece then begins to deconstruct itself, falling into a rabbit-hole of jagged shards that occasionally play against that Lonely Woman-type melody. Then, at the 3:05 mark, a nice, relaxed ostinato beat is set up by the trumpet and tenor sax against long-held chords in the accordion, followed by a rare (for this album) bass solo by Williams, starting completely a cappella before the drums tastefully support him. Eventually Nathoo returns on tenor, this time in a lyrical, almost plaintive mood. The music becomes more lyrical in character even as the background rhythm continues to churn and play against the top line. Jurd’s trumpet is again abrasive in quality as she pits herself against the tenor sax, eventually prompting him to join her in a few angry phrases, then the Lonely Woman theme returns for a ride-out. One thing is becoming quite clear: as good as everyone in this band is, Jurd is an astonishing and creative musician, a real sparkplug who makes every track work better every time she involves herself in the proceedings.
Mugs, on the other hand, is a rhythmically steady piece in E that almost sounds like a rock tune from the 1960s—almost, but not quite. Once again, Williams moves the music in the direction of deconstruction—that is the nest word I can use to describe what he does—it is something akin to taking apart a wind-up toy as it is operating, then watching it slowly disassemble itself. In this case, the motor rhythm also disassembles itself into a slower, weirder version of itself until Williams’ own bass picks the tempo back up again. Nathoo plays a fine solo over the rhythm section and Galvin’s accordion, then Jurd arrives with yet another scintillating solo. This ramps up the excitement level as well as the tempo as Mugs goes screaming off into the void…but not quite, as Gavin (now on vibes) plays the melody as the rest of the band chants wordlessly above him, then everyone joins in for a final, triumphant chorus before yet another abrupt ending.
In Retrogressive Shredfest, Williams opens the proceedings with a quirky line that acts as a basso continuo:
The drums shift the accents on the beat, however, and before long his continuing bass line is the only constant one can hang on to. A dead stop, following which is a slow, free-form passage played by Jurd and Nathoo; then Galvin enters on piano, his sound quirkily “phased” from right to left channel and back again via technological tinkering with the controls, followed by Jurd and Nathoo again. Then a very quiet free-form passage, with Nathoo noodling in the left channel and Jurd, now muted, in the right, with interjections from bass and drums. This increases in volume and intensity, and eventually tempo, as Galvin, Williams and Ibbetson get in on the action before another ritard, a dead stop, then a sluggish, out-of-tempo passage leading back to Williams’ initial bass line which eventually just hits a wall.
Slumps sounds so much in the opening like one of the Ornette Coleman Quartet’s numbers that it shocked me a bit, but it alternates with a Thelonious Monk-ish theme in straight 4/4. Eventually this latter theme straightens out, sounding more like a cool-bop number from the 1950s but with continued double-time interjections of the Coleman-like motif. Nathoo plays a nifty sax solo that also sounds a bit retro over accordion, bass and drums, followed by one bar of the Coleman motif before Jurd takes off at a zippy tempo into the ether, combining bop and outside licks with aplomb. Everything she plays seems to both increase the listener’s attention and enhance what is going on around her. The tempo slows down for Galvin’s single-note accordion solo, which plays with the harmonic strangeness of the underlying bass lick in an interesting and curious way. Continued interweaving of these two themes then resumes, providing a strange ride-out, the final note being an octave slide upward into the snoidvoid.
The final studio track, Hon, opens with a quite different bass line: drummer Ibbetson playing the contrabass C on his bass drum, followed by higher Cs on the tom tom. Eventually we hear Williams playing bowed bass, very high up in its range, with Galvin on accordion and Jurd entering around him (eventually followed by Nathoo). The melodic line is indeed quirky and elusive, here suggestive of the early-1960s Mingus band at its most progressive (the band with Ted Curson and Eric Dolphy). The rhythm sounds regular but is not: if you try to do a beat count, you will find yourself one short each time around. This doesn’t seem to bother the band, however, as they weave their way around. We get a bit more studio trickery as Galvin plays an organ solo over his own sustained chords on accordion. Nathoo and Jurd extend and build on the opening melodic bit, creating something akin to a real melody, before eventually moving into a fade-out ending.
The bonus track, Glyn, comes from a live concert and features only a trio of Huw Warren (piano), Williams (bass) and Jim Black (drums). It is a very space-filled composition, mostly quiet and introspective, and although it is a very fine piece in its own way it doesn’t really fit the character of the other eight pieces. But then again, it is a bonus track and not part of the studio recording. Warren seems to me influenced by Jarrett and perhaps Bill Evans, but moreso Jarrett in that his chord positions aren’t as fluid or unusual as those Evans normally played. Nonetheless, his single-note solo, inventive and arresting, is certainly a highlight of this track. The relaxation of tempo, disappearance of the drums and lead-in to Williams’ superb bass solo, however, reminded me very strongly of the way Evans would lead into Scott LaFaro or Eddie Gomez.
All in all, then, Hon is a wonderful album, one of the finest debut jazz albums I’ve ever heard. I highly recommend it to all and sundry; this is modern jazz at its very best.
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley