The story of jazz saxophonist Todd Williams is truly one of a kind. He grew up in Saint Louis, playing in the University City High School Jazz Band during the early 1980s. This excellent youth band traveled to various national competitions, racking up honors, with Williams repeatedly winning "most outstanding soloist." Their Cinderella story grew in popularity and in 1983 they were invited to the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Thanks to generous hometown fund-raising, it snowballed into a tour of several major European cities. The local PBS station even sent along a camera crew to film a feature-length documentary.
At barely 20 years old, he was invited to join Wynton Marsalis’ band. He spent six years in Wynton’s quintet, sextet and septet, during which time they recorded such classics as the Soul Gestures In Southern Blue trilogy, Blue Interlude, Citi Movement (the soundtrack to a bold new ballet,) In This House On This Morning, as well as two Marcus Roberts sessions. Wynton documented these years in the book Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life, wherein Williams was nicknamed "Deacon" for his outspoken Christianity. Wynton wrote that Todd's parents cook the best barbecue in the world, a hefty claim from a New Orleans native who has eaten practically everywhere as a VIP. Of course, Todd whole-heartedly backs this claim.
As a member of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Williams made many more recordings and earned greater recognition for his solos on Duke Ellington’s "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" on their first national tour. He studied at the Eastman School of Music and graduated with honors from the Manhattan School of Music. He took Jimmy Heath’s place as visiting assistant professor at the Aaron Copland School of Music for three years. He also taught as assistant professor at Queens College, right across the street from Louis Armstrong’s historic home. As a composer, he has won four annual ASCAP Special Awards.
Taking all this into consideration, it was a shock to everyone when Williams decided to leave the jazz world to pursue full-time music ministry. Wynton had been supervising his musical development since high school and as his biggest advocate, he couldn’t help but feel somewhat disappointed. And there were certainly a few nay-sayers. Williams had always been active in church, starting with his hometown West End Missionary Baptist Church, but still.... church music?
Williams’ current title is director of songwriting and development at Times Square Church. In a location even Donald Trump must covet, this mega-church in the heart of New York City is a triumphant example of God's love reaching across racial, social and economic divides. Over 8000 members attend, representing over 100 nationalities. Take a look at the musician's own last names, the band is obviously a multi-ethnic microcosm of this church. Presiding over musical worship in such a congregation is a great privilege and responsibility. In terms of prestige, it could be said that a TSC staff position is the sacred equivalent to his headliner secular gigs. It certainly offers him unique musical opportunities, such as African mission trips. Despite a lifelong desire, Coltrane never even made it to Africa!
Since joining Times Square Church, Williams has composed many high-quality worship songs. Many of these recordings are available from the church website, TSC Music, though hearing Williams solo on praise songs like Twila Paris’ "We Will Glorify" in more than a little surreal.
That brings us to Beautiful Things from Above, Todd Williams’ most recent solo recording. It features 12 well-known hymns and choruses with brand-new arrangements by Gregor Martinsdale, Sakari Pitkasalo, Jukka Palonen, Sampsa Lopponen and three by Williams himself. But in all honesty, it’s probably not all you’d hope for. The frequency balance on Beautiful Things From Above is predominantly treble, mainly due to the soprano sax. Those who remember Williams' great bottom-end will wish for at least a few great tenor sax growls. Nonetheless, the sound quality and packaging design are extremely high for an independent release. The live recordings were captured magnificently by audio engineer Ivan Pokorny. The simple CD cover sports a stark black and gold photograph. It takes a second to realize it’s a close-up photo of his saxophone.
I’ll tell you what I had hoped for as jazz writer and Todd Williams fan. I wanted to argue that despite Williams’ controversial career change, he still makes music of equal importance. Now he’s simply accompanying a different Master. Sadly, Beautiful Things From Above is not the proof I need. I can’t help but continue the Coltrane comparison. Williams has kept up his chops, he knows the jazz idiom inside and out and his heart is pure. So I still contend he’s capable of a work along the lines of A Love Supreme. He’s roughly the same age and position as Coltrane at the time, a master musician, having achieved solo status only after years of arduous journeyman status for the biggest names in the business in a wide variety of musical settings. The saxophone has always been a great instrument on which to express spiritual longing, Williams and Coltrane both maximize its similarity to the human vocal range. With A Love Supreme, Trane proved that instrumental jazz could be used to communicate personal spirituality, literally drawing listeners closer to his Creator. Like improvisers Bach and Handel before him, his musical statement of faith also became an international bestseller. Todd Williams has one in him, I’m sure of it.
"I am Thine O Lord/Draw Me Nearer" features Williams on soprano sax offering a beautiful interpretation of these two old hymns. The bass and drums are tight, but the breathy synth pad pushes it pretty far into the smooth jazz style.
"Fountain Meditation" is a medley of "There is a Fount," "Jesus Paid it All" and "Rock of Ages," three tunes more similar than you may have noticed before. Williams starts delving into bluer notes, resulting in a fine new melody. The tune features excellent interplay between piano and electric bass.
"In My Heart There Rings a Melody" is a song that always possessed certain New Orleans raucousness. The first of three arrangements by Williams, the hymn is updated with funky bass and off-kilter jazz syncopation, hallmarks of Williams’ style. The next song, "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing," is played in a somewhat minor-key, sorrowful mode.
"Nearer My God To Thee" may be the most passionate track here, but for jazz fans, the best by far is "Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us" which features an electric bass solo with deeply resonant harmonics. The bongos and underlying beat lean toward bossa nova.
Beautiful Things From Above was clearly intended for churchgoers who know "the great hymns of the faith" well enough to sing along in their heads. The only real surprise is how straight everything was played. Williams plays from the heart for those who have ears to hear, but old-school Todd Williams fans will wish for more complex exploration.
The liner notes of Beautiful Things From Above reveal these tracks were never intended as a cohesive CD release. If you’ve spent much time in a typical Christian church, you surely remember the "special music" part of the service between the announcements and the sermon. That’s pretty much what we’re dealing with here, except instead of the music minister’s off-key daughter it’s a world-class jazz musician behind the pulpit. These live recordings of Williams’ Sunday worship services are a far cry from what he played in clubs and concert halls, though.
In any church, it’s hard to tell how much ministry is for God and how much is for the people. One thing’s for sure, Williams’ congregants would rather hear Kenny G Goes Gospel than groundbreaking jazz. Williams is a minister after all, more interested in leading worship than "tooting his own horn." That’s why if you don’t love this disc, you can’t really hold it against him. Let’s just hope he finds the time to develop the jazz record we know he’s capable of. Here's hoping for a Todd Williams comeback project with a traditional small jazz combo. Good old acoustic band music with none of the overbearing electronic elements.
"He hath made everything beautiful in his time..." Ecclesiastes 3:11a.
David Seymour is a jazz journalist in Todd Williams' native St. Louis, MO, USA.