Willie Jones III Merges Swing and Swagger

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My Point is ... is drummer Willie Jones III’s most recent long-playing album.

(Photo: Anna Yatskevich)

​It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to complete the elliptical title of Willie Jones III’s new album, My Point is… (WJ3), on which the 49-year-old drummer helms a quintet with tenor saxophonist Ralph Moore, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, pianist Eric Reed and bassist Buster Williams.

“The common ground for these musicians is that they all love to play in a style that some would call hard-bop or straightahead—what I’d call real jazz,” Jones said of his bandmates over breakfast near his home in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood in late September. Bolstered by a four-night run at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola before entering the studio, the players navigate the eight-piece program with abundant energy and a fresh approach. A similar descriptor fits Jones’ five previous albums on his imprint label, WJ3, and another 11 releases on the label, including works by Reed, pianist Cyrus Chestnut, and alto saxophonist Justin Robinson, as well as guitarist Jacques Lesure and veteran bassist Henry Franklin. (The latter two, like Jones, are natives of Los Angeles.)

“Real jazz to me has the rhythmic feel of swinging,” Jones said. “You can improvise, but change the rhythm base, and the style is different. It’s great if blues is in it, but there doesn’t necessarily have to be. The groove basis for jazz is the ride cymbal. If I want to play r&b or funk, then the emphasis will be on the backbeat with the snare drum and hi-hat. I can do that. I grew up loving Donny Hathaway, Earth, Wind & Fire, Roberta Flack. I’m the generation of hip-hop. I love black music. But I’m all about that spang-a-lang on the ride cymbal. I’m all about the finger-poppin’. That’s what I was raised in. I breathe it.”

Jones is best known for applying these aesthetics during a 1998–2006 stint with trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s quintet, and subsequent tenures as drummer-of-choice for the late piano masters Cedar Walton and Hank Jones.

These days he most frequently plays with guitarist Russell Malone’s quartet, with whom he performed on Sept. 22 at the uptown Manhattan club Smoke to promote the group’s third HighNote album, Time For The Dancers.

Jones seemed to barely move a muscle above his shoulders, propelling the flow with deep focus, impeccable time and a keen instinct for conjuring combinations of rhythm timbre most apropos to each environment. Throughout the set, he displayed a mastery of diverse feels: backbeat-to-swing on Mulgrew Miller’s “Soul-Leo”; medium swing on Walton’s “Rubber Man”; brush-stroked rubato on Jimmy Webb’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”; spare, crisp tippin’ on Malone’s blues-drenched “The Ballad Of Hank Crawford”; groove-rich tone-painting on Bobby Hutcherson’s “Little B’s Poem”; and, yes, high-octane spang-a-lang on Freddie Hubbard’s “Sweet Sue,” which climaxed with well-designed drum solo.

“Willie makes everything feel good,” Malone said during a subsequent phone conversation. “Some drummers can’t get through two bars of music without trying to do something cute and slick, but with Willie, the time and the groove is not an afterthought. He’s aware of each component of the song—the melody, the changes and the form. I like to incorporate different grooves into my things, and Willie does not turn up his nose at them. He knows exactly what to do. That’s why so many people want to utilize his skills.”

The qualities to which Malone referred pose certain complexities for Jones in balancing the various components that comprise his career matrix. As we spoke, he was anticipating his semimonthly two-day trip to Northwestern University, where he’s taught since 2010, to be followed by a European tour with an Eric Reed-led quartet featuring Italian tenor saxophonist Piero Odorici and bassist Dezron Douglas. He noted a recent New York engagement with Javon Jackson’s superb but intermittently convened Sax Appeal, with Gary Bartz, Donald Harrison, and Jimmy Heath, and cited gigs with Diane Schuur and Vincent Herring.

The release of My Point Is… was imminent, and he was preparing to drop new WJ3 releases by Reed and Moore.

“It’s a full schedule,” Jones said. “I’d like to transform into getting more gigs with my own band and play as a sideman with maybe one or two groups. I’d like it to be 50-50.”

Toward that end, Jones was trying to book his My Point Is… quintet, which he calls the WJ3 All-Stars, on the 2018 U.S. and European festival circuits. “It’s a difficult mountain to climb when you don’t have big-time management,” he said. “It’s stressful. But once I get the gig, getting [the band] together in one room or at the airport or to a recording session is no problem.”

Jones is anything but a bombastic player; a blindfolded fan could listen to My Point Is…several times without realizing the drummer is the leader.

“Willie doesn’t necessarily put himself out front on the bandstand, but he’s very much a leader in the sense that he hustles the gigs, pulls the guys together, handles the logistics, and does it with a sense of ease,” Moore said. “When he asked me to do a record [for WJ3], I agreed immediately. He gave me complete leeway with the music, but he was totally hands-on.”

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February 2020
Nicholas Payton
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