Unfortunate only in being a memorial to James Williams, an exemplary presentation to the great American songbook by a tight quartet including singer and sometimes a horn: what mainstream jazz vocal discs should aspire to.
At first sight of this, I remembered James Williams, who plays piano here and left us far too soon aged only 52 late last year. Bob Blumenthal's liner note was written in the all-too-happy assumption that Williams would still be a long time with us, though the note by Frank Jackson indicates that they did know.
Frank Jackson certainly won't mind missing absolute priority of reference in an account of his disc, given that it was Williams's conception and given how much Williams contributes both as soloist and accompanist. Kenny Washington was an excellent choice as drummer, Ron Carter needs no further recommendations but deserves them nonetheless, and Billy Pierce (when featured) is the best I've yet heard him.
Pierce opens on soprano, singingly. Jackson, 78 at the time, isn't quite right. He has a long history on the West Coast and this recording might have marked his first trip to NYC (the notes aren't clear). I didn't know him at all (I seldom keep up with singers) or his history as a pianist. His best performances come later on the disc, but after his opening vocal on "Autumn in New York", Williams plays a solo he seldom surpassed.
The opening to "What Is This Thing Called Love" is by the quartet with Pierce on tenor, playing a melody line I don't recognise. Jackson picks up, singing the melody with only Washington's drums for support. It's a little startling: he'll turn out to be at his best in keys which make him sing a bit higher, and the jazz influence is present in his emulating horn players who pitch competently but add edge by allowing fractionally sharp overtones. (He's a light baritone who couldn't break into tenor and never tries any lower notes.) Williams presumably relished the challenge when he accompanied Jackson earlier (none of the other three instrumentalists had met him before the November 2003 dates which produced this). Pierce solos on tenor, and Williams stretches out, which is I think what everybody was right to want. Jackson sings again and scats over the drums before the close.
I can't imagine "Summertime" was unproblematic, even for the massive Carter, sole accompanist and imaginative soloist. Once or twice there's a momentary collision of tunings, but they make good time together, as is clear on "You Are Too Beautiful", which doesn't audibly feature Washington; rather plenty more Williams, allowed scope by Carter's poised timing. On "If I Should Lose You" (Pierceless like the preceding title) Carter's solo is up to par, and Williams was a great accompanist, ranging from very full indeed to minimal. Here Jackson and Carter duet into a fade.
"A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" and Pierce's soprano sang in NYC in November 2003. On this Jackson seems to have lost ten years; the key is right, he has assurance. Maybe his singing on this was a music lesson for Pierce, who caps it with outstanding work.
Scatting trio-accompanied on "Yardbird Suite" after singing a verse whose origins I don't know, Jackson seems definitely rejuvenated. Carter solos again here and in the similarly hornless "Baby, I'm Yours". It's a well-integrated band. Pierce's tenor opens "Oh, You Crazy Moon", and comes in with great fluency in his solo. There's more Williams.
"I See a Million People But All I Can See is You" was co-composed by the singer-pianiste Una Mae Carlisle, who has been described as a protégé of Fats Waller (they are said to have made sweet music together without using a keyboard). This isn't a ballad album at all, and the inspired playfulness of Williams's solos becomes more and more cheerful both on this hornless performance and on the inspired, unusual choices "Foolishly Yours" and "It's Monday Every Day" which fill the last 12 minutes of this nearly 70 minute set. The penultimate number has one more Carter solo and some very active bass playing behind Williams's exuberance. The final one has another corking solo from the pianist, whose last session this apparently wasn't. He will continue to be missed, not least by Frank Jackson. This CD is all about generosity.