Tony Williams doesn't waste time with casual pleasantries. His opening set at Catalina Tuesday night took off with the gradual, but inexorable, fire and brimstone of a Saturn rocket lift-off.
The current Williams band (an all-star assemblage featuring Wallace Roney on trumpet, Bill Pierce on tenor and soprano saxophones, Mulgrew Miller on piano and Ira Coleman on bass) has remained intact since 1989, and has become both an extension and a counterbalance to Williams' drumming.
For the first half of the program, Williams dominated, sometimes in disturbingly aggressive fashion. The soloists, despite occasionally strong improvisational efforts, were almost completely in the control of Williams' surging, complex percussion accents. The energy, flow and sectionalizations of their solos were determined, like it or not, by his powerful commands.
As the set progressed, however, Williams' spectacular display of directive leadership gave way to a more reasoned connection with his players. On "Blackbird" and "Poinciana," for example, Miller, Pierce and Roney, in particular, stepped forward to establish some legitimate creative territorial imperatives of their own.
It was a welcome change. There's no questioning Williams' status as one of the finest contemporary jazz drummers in the world. He's played with, to name only a few, John McLaughlin, Miles Davis and Hank Jones. But his best playing has always been done when he has focused his remarkable skills on an interactive and stimulatory role.
Benny Green shared the night with a trio performance--working with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Carl Allen--that was surprisingly run-of-the-mill. The pianist's decision to re-explore the familiar expanses of be-bop and soul jazz has made sense when he brought vigor and curiosity to these well-mapped areas.
But Tuesday night's appearance lost its way early on, with Allen making the only significant musical discoveries during his ever-fascinating drum solos.