James Williams & Dennis Irwin

Taking advantage of the Italian dates of Art Blakey’s tour, Alberti proposed to Williams and Irwin (both Jazz Messengers) to record a piano and double bass duo.
A gifted musician, Williams, at only twenty-two years of age, became a teacher at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. His mastery at the keyboard did not go unnoticed in the eyes of a talent scout like Blakey who, after two initial rejections, finally managed to recruit him for his Jazz Messengers. Williams’ collaboration with Blakey would develop steadily over the next ten years.
Six months before Williams came to his court, Blakey had also recruited bassist Dennis Irwin, a native of Birmingham, Alabama. He had played with Red Garland before moving to New York in 1974, where he had worked with Ted Curson, Mose Allison, Betty Carter and many others, knowing that his own artistic growth ‘…would come from taking every opportunity to play’. Irwin kept to the rule he had given himself and, in the course of his activity, participated as a sideman in the production of over five hundred records.
The duo recorded a total of five tracks for Red Records, one of which was signed by Williams, two by Irwin and two standards.

James Williams was born on 8 March 1951 in Memphis, Tennessee. He began studying piano at the age of 13 and later served as organist at Eastern Star Baptist Church in Memphis, a position he held for six years. He earned a degree in Music Education from Memphis State University, where he also formed close friendships with Memphis pianists Mulgrew Miller and Donald Brown.
At the age of 22, Williams moved to Boston to accept a teaching position at Berklee College of Music. A year later he joined drummer Alan Dawson’s band, which provided support in the Boston area for touring artists such as Art Farmer, Milt Jackson, Sonny Stitt, Pat Martino, Jean Carn, Red Norvo and Arnett Cobb. In 1977 Williams recorded his first album as leader, gave his first concert with original compositions and met Art Blakey for the first time, with whom he recorded 10 albums for the Jazz Messengers, in a line-up that included Wynton Marsalis, Bobby Watson, Bill Pierce and Charles Fambrough.
In 1984 Williams moved to New York, playing and recording with Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, George Duvivier, Art Farmer, Kenny Burrell, Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard and Tony Williams.
He has produced albums for many other musicians, including Phineas Newborn, Jr., Harold Mabern, Donald Brown, Billy Pierce, Bill Easley, Tony Reedus and Geoff Keezer. In 1993, Williams concentrated his production activities under the umbrella of his company, Finas Sound Productions, Inc. The name is a phonetic homage to Phineas Newborn, Jr. who pronounced his name ‘Fine’-us’.
A prolific composer, his pieces such as ‘Arioso’, ‘Black Scholars’ and ‘Alter Ego’ embody memorable melodies and snappy rhythmic construction. Many of his tracks appear on albums by other artists, including those of Art Farmer, Kenny Barron, Victor Lewis, Gary Burton and Roy Hargrove.
Williams has been a long-time educator. In addition to Berklee, he was a faculty member of the National Combo Camp, taught at the Hartt School of Music, was a founding member of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, and director of jazz studies at William Paterson University.
He died of liver cancer in New York in 2004.

Dennis Irwin, double bassist, was born on 28 November 1951 in Birmingham, Alabama, and has over 500 recordings to his credit. Irwin attended North Texas State University studying classical music. Although he began playing alto saxophone and clarinet (earning his first All State chair in clarinet while attending Westchester High School in Houston), he soon switched to bass guitar.
He worked with pianist Red Garland in Dallas and moved to New York to play with Charles Brackeen and Ted Curson in 1975. He accompanied singers such as Jackie Paris, Betty Carter, Annie Ross, Ann Hampton Callaway, Tania Maria and Mose Allison. Starting in 1977, Irwin played with Art Blakey for three years.
The Jazz Messengers recorded several of Irwin’s compositions, including ‘Kamal’. Irwin also worked with Chet Baker, Mel Lewis, Joe Lovano, Stan Getz, Johnny Griffin and Horace Silver, as well as Brazilian musicians Duduca Fonseca and Portinho. From 1992 to 1995, Irwin played with guitarist John Scofield.
His battle with liver cancer, which eventually proved fatal to him, raised awareness of jazz musicians without medical insurance. The Jazz Foundation of America and Englewood Hospital and Medical Center created the Dennis Irwin Memorial Fund to pay for cancer screenings for uninsured jazz and blues musicians.
Irwin died in Manhattan on 10 March 2008, the same day a Jazz at Lincoln Center benefit concert was held in his honour, with performances by Wynton Marsalis, Tony Bennett and Jon Hendricks, as well as Lovano and Scofield.

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