Willie Jones III: Ode to Fallen Heroes


On his new recording, Jones honors friends and mentors he has recently lost.

(Photo: Rayon Richards)

Sheltered in his music room, Willie Jones III adjusts the volume on a Billy Taylor record. He swivels around to face his Yamaha Maple Custom drum set. Since March 2020, the soundproof corner of his Brooklyn apartment has served as practice space, office and composer’s chamber.

It’s tricky, but it’s been cool,” said the Los Angeles native, who’s lived in Brooklyn for more than two decades. “And finally, there’s some daylight.”

As dawn has taken its time to break, Jones has taken time to reconcile memory and mourning, arriving at a place of gratitude. This March, he issued Fallen Heroes, his eighth release as a leader and the 23rd on WJ3 Records, the label he launched in 2000. In 2018, Jones hadn’t considered releasing an homage album, at least not intentionally. But life happens and, unfortunately, death followed.

“That was a major blow,” said Jones, recalling the moment that he learned Roy Hargrove had passed away. At that point, he began envisioning a project dedicated to Hargrove, whose ensemble he’d served in from 1998 to 2006. Jones set up a tribute gig at Caramoor Jazz Festival, inviting personnel from different eras of Hargrove’s touring band, including Larry Willis, who soon followed Hargrove. “Then Jimmy Heath made his transition, and it just opened up for me conceptually,” he said.

Producing a project that would honor those fallen heroes of the bandstand, Jones sought to include another icon whose influence he considers significant to his artistry though not explicit in his sound: Ndugu Chancler, one of the first drummers Jones heard live.

“He was always very supportive,” Jones said. “It’s one thing to be inspired by somebody from listening to their records, but knowing someone personally, in the way I knew Ndugu, has a different impact on you.”

Fallen Heroes opens in artful rumination. Jones’ solo piece “Something For Ndugu” bonds foundational elements heard throughout the album: influence, spontaneity and personal expression. Borrowing a phrase from the brief but distinctive intro to Michael Jackson’s “Baby Be Mine,” he honors Chancler’s figure as a medium for his own improvisation. During a West Coast tour, Jones allowed the figure to spark his solo performance. By the time he booked a studio date in January 2020, he’d decided the improvised gesture would serve as track one. “The only thing that’s worked out [beforehand] is the opening phrase,” Jones said.

Bookended by Jones’ original tunes, Fallen Heroes features compositions from Willis, Heath and Hargrove. “Generally, I like song lists to be upbeat,” Jones said. “But that’s not what we recorded. This is what we documented. It’s a lot of songs that have vibe.” The album’s mood casting includes contributions from Jones colleagues who have also enjoyed seminal associations with his fallen heroes — including Justin Robinson, Sherman Irby, Steve Davis, Gerald Cannon, Renee Neufville and Jeremy Pelt. After booking George Cables for the January date, Jones invited emerging pianist-composer Isaiah Thompson for sessions in August as a way to continue the legacy of mentorship. “It just made sense to include him,” he said.

Thompson, who released his debut album on WJ3, feels grateful for the opportunity to be part of the continuum. “When you play with more experienced musicians, you can feel the legacy of the artists they played with,” he said. “That’s what keeps the music moving forward.”

Part of the WJ3 catalog, Jones’ album in effect pays tribute to a fifth hero who instilled in him the importance of artistic ownership: Billy Higgins. “He always told me how important it is to own your own music,” said Jones, who also serves as label producer.

In early 2020, Jones tracked Thompson’s record — along with releases from Gregory Tardy and Teodross Avery — even though his calendar brimmed with performance dates. By April, he’d lost his gigs and arrived at a crossroads: release the music or put it on hold. “I just thought, I’m going to put [these records] out, anyway,” Jones said. “People need to hear this music now more than ever.”

Over the past two decades, Jones’ relationship with WJ3 Records has gone through changes. And while the pandemic has diminished certain returns, he takes the long view: “If you’re not losing money, then you’re winning.”

“In any type of market where you’re doing what you love and you’re in total control of it as your own boss — if you’re able to do all that and not lose money, you’re ahead of the game. So I put out those records during the pandemic, and now I’m dropping mine. Hopefully, I’ll have some gigs to support that. I’m confident I will.” DB

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May 2024
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