SEAL BEACH — Most of Claude Williamson's exposure has come through his television work. Beginning in 1968, the pianist-arranger-conductor spent 12 years toiling as a musician and/or musical director for such programs as "The Andy Williams Show," "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour" and "Donny and Marie."
But well before that, Williamson had a burgeoning reputation as a jazz pianist. He had long stints in the Charlie Barnet band and with saxophonist Bud Shank. Williamson, whose brother is the late trumpeter-trombonist Stu Williamson, led his own trios around Southern California, recording for Capitol ("Keys West") and other labels.
Since quitting the studio grind, Williamson has returned to his first love, jazz piano, appearing locally as well as traveling the U.S., Canada and Japan. Wednesday night he was at Spaghettini leading a trio in a program of standards, some offbeat jazz tunes (Al Haig's "Linear Motion") and a healthy dose of the music of Williamson's idol, Bud Powell.
It was on the latter numbers that Williamson best revealed Powell's spirit. The pianist attended the New England Conservatory in the early 1940s, and this classical training shows up in the smoothness of his play and the harmonic textures he develops.
Williamson is one of those players whose up-tempo work is deceivingly relaxed, executed in a way that, despite the speed, flows with ease and lightness. This was especially apparent during Benny Harris' tribute to Powell, "Bud's Bubble," as Williamson worked with an effortless grace.
The pianist's left hand served as a dance partner to his right, sometimes following closely, sometimes taking the lead with sweeping command. Powell's "Bouncing With Bud" found his left hand developing a contrasting, even pace while his right bounded along on the theme.
On ballads, Williamson took a subtler stance, extending his phrases in a way that seemed to float them against the rhythm. He was dark and lush on a solo introduction to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." This same effect distinguished a mid-tempo version of "My Romance," played with a treatment that moved easily between swing and a more considered beat.
While Williamson is comfortable with the bop style pioneered by Powell and others, he also likes to add soulful touches that recall Horace Silver or even Les McCann. Oscar Pettiford's bass-driven "Blues in the Closet" gave Williamson the perfect format for this approach, but he also added funky touches to "Linear Motion" and Hampton Hawes' bouncy waltz "Sonora."
Bassist Tom Warrington made the perfect complement, delivering solid, sometimes snappy support, then moving down the deck of his instrument for his upper-register soloing. Drummer Paul Kreibich, who plays on Williamson's new, Powell-inspired album "Hallucinations" (VSOP), was his usual tasty self, keeping tight time while adding plenty of accenting embellishments.
The three worked well together, with Warrington and Kreibich expertly following the pianist wherever he would take them. The group combined to touch a range of emotions, not the least of which was joy. Even the troubled Powell, were he still on the planet, would have smiled at this performance.