Claude "Fiddler" Williams,
Swingin' the Blues
(Bullseye, 2000)

Claude Williams has been around, if not forever, then damn near. He was playing fiddle with the Doc Pettiford band in the mid-1920s, then went on play with Andy Kirk and several other groups before joining Count Basie in the mid-'30s. He's kept playing and gigging all these years, and now, in his early 90s (!), he's joined with pianist Henry Butler, guitarist Joe Cohn (son of sax legend Al Cohn), drummer Jimmy Lovelace and bassist Keter Betts for a swinging CD that proves that you're as young as you feel.

And Claude Williams must feel pretty young. There's over an hour of great jazz here. Although Williams' intonation and chops may have diminished somewhat with the years, the spirit shines brightly, and you get the sense of the true inventiveness here that is at the heart of jazz. There are a few misfires, like "Over the Rainbow," whose slow tempo only highlights Williams' difficulties with playing long, sustained tones. But slow ballads are otherwise avoided, to the benefit of the CD.

Williams still swings nicely, and it is on the many up-tempo works that the music really takes off. Though Williams was never the equal of Stephane Grappelli (and who was?), he proves throughout to be a driving, swinging force. The other musicians are equally at home with the music. Henry Butler, who at one time had seemed like just another "young lion," contributes masterful work, comping skillfully and turning in superb solos, particularly in "I'm Just a Lucky So and So."

Guitarist Joe Cohn is a revelation. He provides a graceful harmonic underpinning while performing luscious solos, profound in their simplicity. I haven't enjoyed jazz guitar like this in years.

Keter Betts and Jimmy Lovelace do a great job of support throughout the session, and get a chance to trade fours in "One for the Count." They play with consummate taste.

Bobby Watson's alto makes a welcome visit in "These Foolish Things" and "A Smooth One," in which his sax harmonizes sweetly with Williams' fiddle. His strong, supple tone also supplies a welcome variety as a lead voice.

Swingin' the Blues is a fun album for jazz and swing fans. You may need to slightly attune your ears to Williams' occasionally rough tones, but there's an affectionate vivacity here that you'll find contagious. Here's hoping that Claude Williams will be able to keep swinging for years to come.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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