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Body + Mind + Spirit

22 June 2015 / by James Rozzi (writer)
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In one of the tiny music studios off a winding hallway below Georgia State's Rialto Center for the Performing Arts, Woody Williams teaches drums with discernible patience and quietude. The walls of his diminutive room are pristine with several rectangular swatches of dark acoustic absorbent material mounted almost as paintings. No windows look out over the busy downtown street where pedestrians careen and enormous buildings hover. The undertakings within could not have less to do with the bustling world of commerce. Kept inside is only a drum set and percussion of different sizes and shapes -- arranged meticulously on the floor to allow tight passage for one or two people. And yet, as the stranger to Williams' compact lair develops even a surface understanding of the man who is Atlanta's premier jazz drummer, the setting takes on a different proportion. With a life so completely immersed in music, the battery within may well be all that Williams needs -- reallyneeds -- to exist. If Woody Williams has a credo, it surely must read, "Music first; all else will wait."

 Woody Williams' regular Wednesday night residency at MJQ Concourse's Caf begins August 2.

Woody Williams' regular Wednesday night residency at MJQ Concourse's Caf begins August 2.

"I structure my life so that music has first priority and everything else orbits that," Williams offers succinctly. "I spend a great deal of time thinking about music. Sure, I have other interests. I've been a vegetarian for eight years, and I enjoy cooking. Lately, I've gotten into following basketball again, something I used to be into. Studying Spanish is something I really enjoy." Then switching back, "I think the way one lives one's life reflects itself in the music."

Williams' propulsive drumming has been gaining worldwide acclaim for some time now. He has cut several exceptional albums as a sideman with locally connected trumpeters Marcus Printup and Russell Gunn. His tenure with vocalist Nnenna Freelon has produced two fine albums. In fact, Gunn's Ethnomusicology, Vol. 1 on Atlantic, and Freelon's Shaking Free on Concord (the latter also featuring local pianist Bill Anschell) have received Grammy nominations. Woody has traveled to Europe 15 times in the past six years, as well as to Africa and Brazil with various groups. "I've been very fortunate," he concedes. "I really enjoy the musicians I travel and record with."

A steady Wednesday night gig beginning August 2 at MJQ Concourse's newly added Café has finally granted Williams an outlet for exploring his own music in depth. "I'll be doing different configurations of things," he says, obviously delighted. "The percussion will be the springboard for horn players, bassists, poets, story tellers, dancers, other percussionists. There will be a rotating cast. I don't want it to be a jazz thing only," he clarifies. "I want it to encompass all styles. We'll play for an hour, then I'll spin for an hour. The Café is a great place for listening."

Born and raised in Montgomery, Ala., Williams has been attracted to the sound of drums for as long as he can remember. "My dad worked at Alabama State (where Woody eventually received his bachelor's degree), and some of my earliest memories revolve around being excited about the school's marching band." Williams' older brother was also "into the drums" and helped forge a connection for his younger sibling.

Rudimental snare drum lessons began at age 5. Woody taught himself drum set while in junior high, using his father's Miles Davis and James Brown records as early models. He began commuting to Atlanta for gigs and eventually enrolled in Georgia State, where he received his Master's of Music in Jazz Studies in 1996. Woody lives sparingly, with an admirable lifestyle on and off the stage. Bill Anschell relays, "Woody lives and breathes music. He is the most serious, dedicated musician I've ever known, period. He has impeccable time. Because his playing is so organic -- and he often appears in relatively free settings -- most people don't know he's a monster sight-reader. He's so creative with grooves -- freely incorporating ideas from different idioms into his playing." For an exemplary auditory reference, check out Woody's drumming on Bill Anschell: A Different Note All Together (Accurate).

"Woody and I played together in New York a couple of times backing Nnenna Freelon," continues Anschell, "and when he went to the late-night sessions at Smalls afterwards, people were lining up to get his phone number. If he wanted to move to New York he could rise to the top in the straight-ahead or experimental jazz scenes. The only reason he's not more of a national name is because he stays in Atlanta."

On the local front, Williams performs often at venues such as Churchill Grounds, where straight-ahead jazz is the main course. His drum solos are things of beauty -- highly rhythmic melodies relying on the song's intent and form for inspiration, yet flowing impulsively with ideas. Although he knows the history of hard bop as well as anyone, Williams' aspirations run more deeply. For example, his freely improvised "Drum Dialogues" with Andrew Barker (of the Gold Sparkle Band) have become much-anticipated affairs. But Williams' own all-percussion group, La Diaspora Folklorica, is by far closest to his heart and most aligned with his ambitions.

While touring with other groups, Woody has made it a priority to study with the master percussionists of Brazil, Africa and the Caribbean. Passing this knowledge on to La Diaspora Folklorica's percussionists, his long-term goal is to present stylized musical representations of every country once involved in the slave trade.

"Diaspora is a root word that means 'to be dispersed,'" Williams explains. "The African slaves were taken to Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, the Bahamas, the United States. Every culture plays different kinds of percussion. My intention is to have a core group of drummers learn these different instruments and rhythms, and still maintain who we are here in America. It's an ongoing process, a synthesis with what we know, more so than true folklorica music." The band's current study combines the bata drum rhythms of the Cuban Santeria religion with the high-energy horn improvisations of American jazz, producing a spiritually rooted, very artistic hybrid.

Unlike most jazz musicians who seek portrayal of themselves through their instruments, Williams sees the transcending of self through music as the epitome of expression. He cites the omnipotent mid-'60s music of John Coltrane as a very strong inspiration. "First of all," Williams relates, "that can be a true sign of greatness -- a person who, every time he or she picks up an instrument, is able to go into that space. But that starts with the person away from the instrument. All that great stuff Trane did leading up to the '60s still didn't have the impact of the music he played when he was clean -- when he was living a particular kind of lifestyle, with a particular kind of focus.

"I have always been around drums, and have always been drawn to them," Williams sums up quietly. "Some musicians hear melodies or harmony, I've always heard rhythm. In some cultures -- not in the West -- drums are the most important things in the whole society." In the self-styled existence in which Woody Williams immerses himself daily, the drum remains his fulcrum. His practice, contemplation and performances are very nearly his daily bread.

Woody Williams' regular Wednesday night residency at MJQ Concourse's Café begins August 2.

The author

James Rozzi

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