In the introduction to his 1985 book Rhythm-a-NingGary Giddins writes, “When we talk about a renaissance in jazz, we are talking about a wealth of interesting music, not a broad-scaled awakening of interest in that music,” and nearly 40 years later that remains true. He lays out what he says is the core dilemma: “What must an exceptionally gifted American musician whose art falls between the shores of the academy and the Top 40 do to get the hearing he deserves?” He argues that “the neoclassicists…have a task no less valuable than innovation: sustenance… [they] are needed to restore order, replenish melody, revitalize the beat, loot the tradition for whatever works, and expand the audience.”

Willie Jones III is a jazz drummer, born in Los Angeles but based in New York. He’s worked with Horace SilverRoy HargroveCedar WaltonHarold MabernHouston Person, and many other well-known players. He’s about as pure a traditionalist as you can find. He swings hard, and his compositions have hummable melodies. And for a little over 20 years, he’s been making albums as a leader on his own WJ3 label. He releases other musicians’ work, too — there are about two dozen WJ3 releases in total, including titles by pianists Cyrus ChestnutEric Reed and Isaiah J. Thompson; saxophonists Gregory TardyTeodross Avery, and Justin Robinson; and others.

Jones’ debut, Vol. 1…Straight Swingin’, was recorded mostly in August and September 1999, though two pieces from a 1996 session were tucked in. The band features Eric Reed on piano on seven of its eight tracks, and two different bassists — Tony Dumas in 1996 and Gerald Cannon in 1999. Alto saxophonists Sherman Irby and James Mahone appear on about half the record, each getting one track to themselves and playing together on three others. The last track, a version of John Coltrane’s “Naima,” brings Billy Childs in on piano and includes vocals from Dwight TribleVol. 1 lives up to its title, swinging hard throughout, with Reed’s piano in particular keeping things lyrical and boppish. “Wide Open,” though, lets Irby throw some surprises at the listener; his opening riff could almost be a Jimmy Lyons melody from a Cecil Taylor piece. Eventually the music settles into a McCoy Tyner-esque pounding groove, but for a moment it has the twitchy energy of early free jazz. (And yeah, the title of the next track, “Ornate,” is a sly nod to Coleman, as one listen to the melody will demonstrate.)

Jones’ follow-up, Vol. 2…Don’t Knock the Swing, was recorded in August 2001 and April 2002, and released in the summer of 2003. Reed and Cannon were back, and guests included Roy Hargrove on three tracks, trombonist Steve Davis on four, and tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy throughout. People worship Roy Hargrove for a reason; he was an astonishingly virtuosic trumpet player who could do almost anything, a worthy heir to Clifford Brown or Freddie Hubbard. When he died in 2018 at just 49, it was a genuine shock and a real loss. His playing on this album is a show of the kind of casual brilliance he brought to almost every circumstance; he seems to elevate everyone else as they rise to meet him. But even on the tracks where he doesn’t play, this is a taut, hard-swinging display of jazz as Black male swagger.

Vol. 3 was released in 2006, and it’s an outlier in Jones’ catalog because there are no horns. It includes six tracks with Reed on piano and the late Dwayne Burno on bass, and two others with Jones’ father, Willie E. Jones, at the keyboard and Mike Elizondo on bass. Father and son play two standards together: “Here’s That Rainy Day,” popularized by Nat “King” Cole, and “I Heard a Forest Praying,” probably best known in Johnny Mathis’s version. Both songs have a hushed, almost spiritual quality — Elizondo does some beautiful, cello-like bowed bass on the latter — that contrasts with the dinnertime swing of the Reed/Burno tracks.

Jones didn’t make another album as a leader until 2010, and The Next Phase definitely represents change. Although some familiar collaborators (Eric ReedGreg TardySteve Davis) are back, there are new faces as well, notably bassist Dezron Douglas, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, and vocalists Claudia Acuña and Renee Neufville. Wolf and Davis get some of the best solos, and I’m not a big fan of jazz vocals in general, but Acuña’s wordless singing on “Melancholy Mind,” shadowed by the trombone, is quite beautiful.

Many of the same players — Reed, Davis, and Douglas — also appeared on The Willie Jones III Sextet Plays the Max Roach Songbook Live at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, which was released in August 2013. They were joined by two of my favorite players, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and tenor saxophonist Stacy Dillard. The material runs from “Ezz-thetic” and “Mr. X,” both from the 1956 album Max Roach + 4 (his first album following the death of trumpeter Clifford Brown), to “To Lady” from 1960’s Drums Unlimited, “Freedom Day” from 1961’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, to “Libra” (actually a Gary Bartz composition) and “Equipoise” from 1968’s Members, Don’t Git Weary, to a medley of Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” (which the Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet recorded on 1954’s Brown and Roach Incorporated) and “Shirley,” a George Coleman composition from 1958’s Max Roach +4 on the Chicago Scene.

Tackling a full set of material associated with one of the greatest and most important drummers in jazz history is a bold move — it could be a rote exercise in impersonation, or some kind of pseudo-iconoclastic blowout. It’s neither, and Jones makes some surprising choices. For example, there’s no vocalist on “Freedom Day,” originally sung by Abbey Lincoln, and he takes relatively little time in the spotlight himself. When he does erupt, as on “I Get a Kick…,” he plays in his own style, which owes something to Roach, but not as much as you’d think. The real stars of the show are the horns, particularly Dillard, whom I really wish would record as a leader more often. Every time I hear him, he’s doing something great, but almost always in service of someone else’s concept.

Dillard was back on Jones’ sixth album, 2015’s Groundwork, joined by Davis, Reed, Warren Wolf, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, and bassist Buster Williams. On 2017’s My Point Is…, the band was stripped back to a quintet: Henderson, tenor saxophonist Ralph Moore, Reed, and Williams. I’ve been a fan of Henderson’s work for something like 25 years; I didn’t know his name when I headed downstairs into Smalls (its first location) and saw him playing with a quintet that also included vibraphonist Joe Locke, but in the years since I’ve listened to his recordings with Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi — which also included Williams — and the really underrated fusion-unto-disco albums he made in the ’70s, and I’ve seen him a time or two with the high-powered acoustic all-star band the Cookers. I even wrote liner notes for his most recent album, 2020’s Shuffle and Deal. On these two Jones records, he’s a key presence, with an at times startlingly Miles Davis-ish sound (check out the ballad “Christina” on My Point Is…). But these aren’t pure retro hard bop exercises. “The Maze,” also from My Point Is…, marries jazz virtuosity to late-night Quiet Storm funk in a fascinating manner.

Jones’ latest album, 2021’s Fallen Heroes, includes pieces dedicated to players like Leon “Ndugu” ChanclerRoy Hargrove, and Jimmy Heath, and features Pelt on trumpet, Davis on trombone, Justin Robinson on tenor sax, Sherman Irby on alto sax, Gerald Cannon on bass, and Renee Neufville on vocals. For the first time, Eric Reed isn’t the pianist; instead, we get George Cables (and, on one track, newcomer Isaiah J. Thompson). As always, it’s a graceful, energetic album of modern-classicist hard bop with some pleasant surprises. Pelt’s solo on “To Wisdom the Prize” starts off conventional, but veers sideways into some melodic areas that sound indebted to the Philly soul of Gamble & Huff.

Here’s the thing: these are all great records, but this kind of music is extremely difficult to sell in 2023. In the introduction to my book Ugly Beauty: Jazz in the 21st Century, I wrote,

There is value in traditionalism. For one thing, it makes it easier to present the music. You can play any album by any of these artists for a listener, even one who professes ignorance of jazz, and there will be no confusion; whether they like it or not, they will almost certainly nod and agree, “Yes, that sounds like jazz to me.”

From an artistic perspective, too, traditionalism has a certain nobility. An artist must be willing to create a border and stay within it, saying in effect, “I do this — I don’t do that.” The rejection is as important as the affirmation…

This is an approach which works well if your goal is to appeal to existing jazz fans, many of whom are middle-aged or older and many of whom believe jazz to be innately superior to other, more commercially successful forms of music. But what message does it send to a teenager or young adult who hears something that interests them, but doesn’t have the slightest idea what the next step might be? It can create an unconscious suspicion that maybe this isn’t for me, a sort of imposter syndrome. That’s an uncomfortable feeling, and not one somebody’s going to subject themselves to willingly more than a few times…

I think there are a couple of ways Willie Jones III could reach a broader audience, assuming that he wants to. The first would be to keep a steady band together. Yes, he’s got Eric Reed in his corner, but he needs to settle on a bassist and one or two horn players and keep them around for several years. That would allow journalists to hang a narrative on the music. Ask Jeremy Pelt, who made four albums with the same quintet between 2008 and 2012 which are still some of the best-known items in his catalog. Ask JD Allen, who’s made nine albums with the same trio (adding a guitarist on three of those). Ask Keith Jarrett about the American Quartet or the Standards Trio. Having a band is invaluable from both creative and marketing perspectives. And yes, it’s difficult. But so’s jazz. If it was easy, everyone would do it.

The second would be to get out of jazz clubs, and this is part of a larger argument for cross-genre booking. I firmly believe that if you put a jazz group with this kind of classicist sound and a punk band on the same bill, fans of each will leave happy at the end of the night. If you pair a free jazz “fire music” group and a death metal band, same story. Bill Graham knew it 60 years ago — he put Miles Davis on the bill with the Grateful Dead, the Steve Miller Band, and Neil Young & Crazy Horse; he put Charles Lloyd on with the Butterfield Blues Band; he put Cecil fucking Taylor on the same bill as the Yardbirds. And it worked. Jazz in particular needs promoters willing to revive that strategy. I think the artists would welcome it.

In the meantime, though, if you’re reading this, you should be listening to Willie Jones IIIGo give him some of your money.

Phil Freeman

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