One of the benefits of Americans' increased longevity is the rise in outstanding jazz records by eightysomething players. My favorite jazz album of this summer came from 81-year-old Chicago tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, whose The Great Divide is as feisty as it is sagelike. The Twin Cities' own octogenarian hero, Irv Williams, is a much different tenorman from Freeman. Williams is generally cool and in the pocket where Freeman is often prickly and technically (if successfully) "wrong." But like Freeman, Williams is naturally and deeply in tune with history but completely uninterested in being a museum piece. As evidence, we have Williams's fifth CD, That's All?, on which he's joined by pianist Peter Schimke, bassist Billy Peterson, and drummers Kenny Horst and Billy Berg (on three tracks).
Williams, whose sideman credits include stints with Fletcher Henderson and Mary Lou Williams, grew up in Cincinnati and Little Rock but has lived for 60 years in the Twin Cities, where he has served as elder statesman and mentor to many area musicians. That's All? begins with two lightly swinging numbers. First is a cool blues in a Lester Young vein featuring a colorful solo from pianist Peter Schimke; next comes a warm take on "Crazy Rhythm." (Most of the tunes here are quite, perhaps too, familiar, but Williams does offer Ellington's rarely heard "Heaven.") Though Williams is inventive in several styles, he has always excelled with ballads. On a lovesick version of "Ghost of a Chance" he cries and sighs with his instrument, offering fast runs and long, breathy vibrato notes of equal lyricism. His take on Mal Waldron's "Soul Eyes," famously done by John Coltrane, is similarly emotive, as is his tender version of a ballad that perhaps only an 85-year-old could do justice to: "Here's to Life."
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