Jazz drummer Willie Jones III and bassist Gerald Cannon share a long and swinging rhythmic bond that dates back to their 1997 pairing in jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s band. Since then, both have individually—and often together—accompanied a long list of jazz royalty. So it’s no surprise that Cannon invited Jones to play on his second album as a bandleader, Combinations. This time, however, Cannon asked Jones to coproduce. Says Jones, “I just thought, Man, perfect!”
Jones has demonstrated his impressive production talents on the six recordings he’s released as a leader on his own WJ3 record label, and he contends that drummers are a natural fit in the role. “Gerald trusted my ear,” he says. “As a good drummer, you’re always listening to everything that’s going on—rhythms, pitches, tones, and concepts. I’m always conscious that I want to be as musical as possible, since I don’t play piano, bass, or a horn. It’s like you close your eyes and think, Let me just hear everybody else play—like putting on a record. You can judge it as a whole.”
The aptly titled Combinations features a different grouping of musicians on each track. Guests include saxophonist/clarinetists Gary Bartz and Sherman Irby, saxophonist Steve Slagle, trumpeters Jeremy Pelt and Duane Eubanks, pianists Kenny Barron and Rick Germanson, and guitarist Russell Malone. Jones’ infectious drumming is a consistent presence throughout the album, with the exception of one funky track featuring Living Colour’s Will Calhoun. “That was right up his alley,” Jones says. “I was honored just to sit by the mixing board while he was playing. He was great, and it brought diversity to the record.”
Covering a broad range of jazz styles, Combinations kicks off with “Every Man Is a King,” a hard-swinging track that revs up the Jones-Cannon engine. “We’ve always had a tight groove as far as locking up the rhythm section,” Jones says. “In jazz, the groove and the pocket are in the ride cymbal. Gerald is always listening to how I’m attacking the ride. I’m always considering: Does this bassist play ahead of the beat, behind the beat, or right down the middle? Gerald is always right down the middle, which is perfect for me.”
“Columbus Circle Stop” is a tricky and decidedly different number that challenged Jones. “When I first heard the song, I didn’t know how to approach it,” he recalls. After bringing home a demo, Jones listened repeatedly to the melody. “Then I suddenly realized I could approach it with a Jack DeJohnette vibe. There’s not a distinct groove on that song; it’s a constant creative rhythm going on.”
This summer will see the release of Jones’ latest disc, My Point Is…, and his appearance on a new release from Russell Malone, and the drummer will join the young piano phenom Joey Alexander on tour. And while Cannon continues his tenure with McCoy Tyner, Combinations will likely spawn more gigs for his working trio, which includes Jones and Rick Germanson.
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