ARTS / Sticks out from the rest: Jazz Musician of the Year

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THIRTY years ago next May, Miles Davis hired a new drummer. Davis was then at the height of his power and fame, and his record as a talent scout ensured that each of his signings was scrutinised with interest, but there was a special stir when it became known that this particular newcomer was 17. And when we heard what Tony Williams could do, we knew that one aspect of the art of jazz had been taken to a new level of performance.

A serious young man from Boston, Massachusetts, Williams gathered up everything we had heard before and made it better. He had the smooth swing of Kenny Clarke, the kinetic energy of Art Blakey, the upright crispness of Max Roach, the jolting drive of Philly Joe Jones and the wave-like surge of Elvin Jones. What he brought of himself was even greater: a conceptual audacity that involved measured amounts of implication, disruption and discontinuity.

His career since he left Davis in 1968 has been chequered, involving various editions of a pioneering jazz-rock band, occasional outings with a succession of Davis-alumni bands, and a series of recordings which began brilliantly but soon became characterised chiefly by inconsistency of purpose. That began to change in 1985, when he signed with the Blue Note label and began to make records with his new working group, a quintet, which displayed the fruit of an intense study of the theory and techniques of composition.

This year the fifth album in the series, The Story of Neptune, demonstrated that he is now among the most interesting composers in all of post-war jazz. This is the first time such a claim could plausibly be made about a drummer, but his combination of lyricism and structural cunning makes it easy to substantiate. His musicians are first-rate, but it is the quality of the material that makes the quintet the most satisfying of all current jazz units. And, as we saw in another context at the Albert Hall a few weeks ago, Tony Williams's instrumental prowess remains definitive.

Domestically speaking, the year's laurels went to Bheki Mseleku, the London-based South African pianist and composer who seemed to be everywhere. The emotional warmth of his playing reminded us both of the music's roots and of its ability to renew itself. Additional garlands to Camden Town's Jazz Cafe, which managed to see out a year that had threatened its survival, and to the people who keep the small record labels going, notably the founders of Ah-Um and Go Jazz - and, of course, their bank managers.

(Photograph omitted)