To counter a booking conflict, pianist James Williams recruited pal Mulgrew Miller to kick off an early Birdland set. From a sprightly and buoyant opening take on Frank Loesser’s “If I Were a Bell,” to Dave Brubeck’s waltzing standard, “In Your Own Sweet Way,” Miller lost little time in demonstrating the lyrical phrasing and dizzying patterns that have become his trademark.
Centerpiece was the Charlie Parker bop classic “Now’s the Time,” drafted by Bird from the 1949 novelty “Huckle-Buck.” Here, an astonishing drummer, Vinny Sperrazza, added some stunning breaks. It was the first time these guys played together, and the union seemed blessed. Sperrazza also added some fluttering brushwork for Miller’s poetically rich turn on “What’s New?” and in-serted rapid-fire bullet shots to complement Miller’s driving framework on “I Got Rhythm.” From hard bop to ballads, Sperrazza displayed fresh, supple imagination.
Dotted with playful nursery-rhyme quotes, Miller’s original composition “Carousel” boasted rich emotional fiber and a clean, delicate playfulness.
Composer-educator Williams arrived at the witching hour and lost little time getting into an appealing groove, opening his set with Oscar Pettiford’s “Bohemia After Dark,” displaying a grand sense of tradition and his knowing attention to detail and nuance.
Unfortunately Williams cluttered his hour with palatable but less-than-thrilling guest singers. Crooner Keith Outlaw sang “How Deep Is the Ocean,” with that inspired Irving Berlin lyric structured on 11 questions. Williams added stately accompaniment, and swung hard on the classic road trip “Route 66,” nicely assisted by Karl Kaminski’s bass, walking hard all the way.
Frank Jackson, former San Fran Bop City house pianist, was up next to warble the Matt Dennis classic torcher “Angel Eyes” and Vernon Duke’s picturesque postcard “Autumn in New York.” He also added some genial bop scatting in the set. Williams’ piano interludes were keenly tailored, sublimely lyrical and very welcome.
For a real treat, Williams and Miller joined forces for a piano bench duet, limiting the masters to 44 keys each. With Miller on the high register and Williams down below, they sailed through “I’ll Remember April.” The interplay was about fun, and not without some quick thinking and grand ideas. The duet was deceptively simple and direct, with spontaneous original tandem thoughts along the way, and they flowed in a fusion of fun.
James Williams returns to Birdland Feb. 11 for a four-day, triple-piano jam with Bill Charlap and Cyrus Chestnut. One hopes the singers sit this one out.