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MJ Williams

Fresh from the streets and jazz clubs of Paris and the heart of Montana comes “Trance Atlantic,” a new CD rich in adventure by Basin jazz artist MJ Williams.

It’s a beautiful, soaring collaboration by Williams and four musicians she’s met on her annual visits to Paris — John Betsch on drums; Amy Gamlen, saxophone; Peter Giron, bass; and Jobic Le Masson, piano.

Meeting through mutual friends, the musicians began playing together. Williams shared a few of her songs and the others liked what they heard.

Soon Williams and Gamlen ran with the idea of recording a transatlantic CD — composing the majority of the works, which were recorded last winter in Paris. Ken Nelson of Cottage Recording in Helena then mixed and mastered it.

With a little help of a $1,150 grant from the Myrna Loy Grants to Artists program, the CD was released in March – proving once again that a little money in a Montana artist’s pocket can go a long, long way.

Williams’ fifth CD is also a celebration of the universal language of music that reaches across the ocean, cultures and borders.

She invites the listener to join in a musical adventure.

“We travel together, my friends and I, through a musical universe,” she writes on the CD jacket. “We fly through dense nights of entangled melody, harmony and rhythm. Sometimes I hear one of them calling out from what seems like a distant location within the architecture of a song, and we all head off on an expedition through the very real invisible landscape. Along the way, we talk of legendary musicians, public transportation, palm reading, great wine and the indescribable synaptic magic that can occur between the lovers of music everywhere.”

Well known to jazz lovers in Helena, Williams has been playing local clubs for 40 years — starting at 16, sitting in with her father Don Williams playing with Blackie Nelson.

Like her father, MJ plays the trombone. But she’s also known for her distinctive scat singing, original compositions and improvisation.

“(My father) got me real excited about rhythm,” she said. “He loved music more than anything. I got this early shot of the dedication and love that music requires.

“It takes a long time to learn music and

perfect music. Most people don’t know how long it takes. Great musicianship is thousands and thousands of hours. It is a lifelong practice.

“The caliber of musicianship (that) is not being well recognized and well paid is stunning.”

Williams has co-founded several jazz bands and trios over the years.

“I work in a variety of configurations, depending on the money and location,” she said. “I feel really lucky because of the quality of musicians in this state. It’s interesting — I travel 200 to 300 miles to play with them – but in Paris I walk down the street.

“For a jazz player and improviser, music that is challenging that gets people involved is always an adventure. It’s not about music that's like a mind-altering drug or an emotion soother. There's music that has a sense of a swashbuckling type of adventure – and that's what I get from these guys. Someone writes a lead or a chord (progression) – it’s improvisation on a theme. This is taking each theme and developing it and seeing where it goes.

“I have been entranced by the musical landscape, we can travel together since the association began.”

Williams has performed at the New York City Women in Jazz Concert and has also earned recognition for her earlier CDs.

5/4 Magazine of Seattle wrote, “Williams has a mature mezzo and distinct ability to bend any note blue, whether singing or on her horn.”

And JazzScene Magazine of Portland wrote, “M.J. Williams, a really fine scat-singer, with a Susannah McCorkle delivery style, has the right stuff to break through to the big time.”

Joining her on the new CD are Gamlen, an English saxophonist living in Paris who studied at the Royal Academy of Music; Le Masson, born near Paris who studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston; Giron, who grew up in the Bronx and migrated to France and teaches at the American School of Modern Music; and Betsch, of Jacksonville, Fla., who has recorded with innumerable international jazz artists. Betsch worked for many years with Steve Lacey and came to Helena with the ensemble that premiered Lacey's “Vespers” at the Cathedral of St. Helena in the early 1990s.

The next step, said Williams, is to bring the musicians from the “Trance Atlantic” CD together for a U.S. concert. But so far, there hasn’t been the funding to do that.

However, she is planning to show a DVD of them performing together in Paris, which will be a fundraiser for the Myrna Loy’s Grants to Artists program. No date has been set.

“I’m grateful to the Myrna Loy,” Williams said. “I want them to know what a delightful totally, creative thing happened because of their generosity.

She’s also looking for ways to expand local venues for live music.

“On Broadway has been the main sustainer of jazz over the years. They’ve been great consistently,” she said. “A venue like that keeps us all going.

“People who really love the music have a responsibility to bring it to the public in a more meaningful way.”

A CD is one thing – but a live performance is being in the moment to the maximum.

“The fact remains that musicians all over the world face a great challenge to keep live music in the center of this life-affirming practice.”

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