With its smart contemporary touches and comic book source material, Wing Walker Orchestra's nifty debut album, Hazel, likely won't draw comparisons to The Far East Suite. But it's no stretch to say that writer-arranger Drew Williams' spirited East Coast ensemble owes more than a little to the Duke Ellington masterpiece.
Williams, a native of Kansas City, was early into his studies as a classical saxophone major at Missouri's Truman State University when one of his professors kept after him to join the jazz improvisers on campus.
When the professor, well-regarded saxophonist Tim AuBuchon, succeeded in getting his promising student to participate, the results weren't pretty. "I was terrible," Williams said. "I had never even used a jazz mouthpiece. I couldn't play in tune."
But he kept at it, schooling himself on albums by contemporary players his instructor told him to listen to. With its unforgettable tones and melodies, The Far East Suite opened Williams up not only to the glowing possibilities of playing as well as composing jazz music.
The rub was that Truman State didn't offer a jazz degree. By time Williams decided he wanted to pursue jazz, two years into his studies, it was too late to leave. But, he said, "It turned out to be an incredible experience." Free of the codified approach of many jazz schools, he was able to find his own voice at his own pace. (He also found himself with a bass clarinet when AuBuchon, a onetime regular on the Chicago scene with two well-received albums to his credit, sold him his vintage model for cheap.)
Now here is Williams at 30, leading an innovative 11-person ensemble featuring some of the best young players in the country. Playing bass clarinet exclusively on Hazel, he fulfills a dream in combining his love of film music and his love of graphic novels by adapting Saga, the popular Star Wars-inspired space opera of which he is enamored, as a seven-part suite.
The album, produced by Alan Ferber and released on the ears&eyes label, also boasts intoxicating versions of Tune-Yards' "Look Around" (from the album Nikki Nack) and as a bonus track, Michael Attias' "Marina," one in a series of lo-fi electronic pieces by that first-rate saxophonist.
"When I cover stuff, I'd rather blow it up and try it from a different angle," said Williams. "On 'Look Around' the melodies are so incredible and difficult to notate, they're hard to mimic, but we locked into the groove and kept the groove dirty and loose. It builds to a kind of Mingus free for all."
"Marina," regarded by its composer as too difficult to play, did indeed prove to be a challenge for Williams and company. But after playing it live over the course of two years, the orchestra adopted it as one of their favorites.
Williams, who is picky about saxophonists, drafted a pair of terrific ones to animate the music and attain the right harmonic warmth: altoist (and clarinetist) Brad Mulholland and tenorist Eric Trudel. The band also features trumpeters John Blevins and Danny Gouker, trombonists Karl Lyden and Nick Grinder, guitarist Jeff McLaughlin, bassist Adam Hopkins and drummer Nathan Ellman-Bell. Everyone leaves their mark.
Williams was born on June 29, 1988 in Lee's Summit, Missouri. At 15, he knew he wanted to pursue music as a career. Albums including Ben Allison's Little Things Run the World, featuring tenor saxophonist Michael Blake, helped win him over to jazz. "It sounded more like the rock music I was playing in high school than jazz," he said.
The deeper Williams got into playing jazz, and the more he was exposed to other rock-influenced jazz composers including Guillermo Klein, the more he became interested in writing it. Here, too, he struggled in the early going. "Nothing was happening with my early pieces," he said. "Some of what I wrote kinda worked, then it didn't, then it did, then one day I wrote two chords and said, can we play this? Baby steps."
He experienced a breakthrough with a set of music he wrote for a college recital. He used those pieces when he auditioned, successfully, for New York University's Master's program in jazz composition. During his time there, he had the great good fortune of studying with faculty heavies Ralph Alessi, Alan Ferber and Rich Perry.
Wing Walker Orchestra, drawn partly from his NYU confreres, came together gradually. The first song Williams composed for the band, the edgy, ethereal "Forest Boats," was inspired by the films of Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). "I wanted to capture the melancholy, folksy and quirky feeling of the music in these films, for which Jon Brion did most of the scoring," he said.
With its recurring characters, layered themes and interlaced motifs, "Forest Boats" pointed the way to Hazel. Among the distinctive touches on the "Hazel Suite" are drum overdubs and hand claps that boost the energy and intensity of the music.
The orchestra has provided a platform and arrangements for the compositions of such formidable guest players as Michael Attias, Shane Endsley, Jonathan Finlayson and Jason Palmer. The ensemble also has collaborated with the Festival of New Trumpet Music to present two nights of expansive sounds. And Williams has promoted Wind Walker Orchestra and the scene it is part of (he also plays with and composes for Mister Mozart, Bolo and Matterhorn) by hosting a podcast and compiling ear-opening mixtapes.
"I'd like to think that my music reflects all the musical experiences I've had in my life," he said. "I played rock music in high school, got an undergraduate degree in classical music and acquired a Master's in jazz composition. I'm creating music that fits between the lines."