Tiny Tree is a fiercely improvisational quartet led by bassist Steve Williams. The group balances delicate soundscapes with freewheeling compositions to explore, among other things, the emotional-affective capabilities of rhythmic intricacy. The group features Steve Williams on bass, Noah Becker on woodwinds, Lesley Mok on drums, and Juho Valjakka on piano, stepping in for the group’s usual pianist, Theo Walentiny. We talked with Williams about the backstory behind his compositions, and his excitement for stepping into the unknown with his bandmates.
The Jazz Gallery: How did this ‘Tiny Tree’ quartet come together?
Steve Williams: Noah and I met at the New School my second semester there. We played in school ensembles and had classes together, but didn’t become close until about two summers ago. We were in Canada together, where we really bonded and have been close since then. I met Lesley at Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl show at The Jazz Standard. Nick Dunston introduced me to her. I saw her play with Nick and Noah at The Owl Music Parlor. She has this sensitive fierceness on the drums, this focused intensity. I walked up to her after the gig and said “We need to play.” That, along with pianist Theo Walentiny, is the current iteration of this group Tiny Tree. Theo is out of town right now, doing a three-month residency in China, so I had to try to find a different pianist. That’s where Juho comes in. We met last summer in Estonia, we were both there for the IASJ, and were in an ensemble together. We instantly connected, musically and personally. He’s a special pianist, not afraid to take chances. We really bonded over that week, and it so happened that he would be in New York around this time, so I asked if he could extend his stay just to do this gig.
TJG: It’s great that it could work out for you to play together on this gig.
SW: Yeah, I’m excited. This music really leaves improvisatory space open for people who are willing to take chances. They are all very capable of doing that, and I’ve really enjoyed what everyone has to add to the music.
TJG: Tell me a little about the songbook.
SW: Right now, everything is written by me. First, I wanted to challenge myself as a writer and improviser. That’s not necessarily groundbreaking, because that’s what everyone’s writing is. But I really wanted to explore the ‘affect’ of rhythm. Every composition in this book starts out with a rhythmic idea, as opposed to a harmonic idea. I’m trying to explore the emotions behind rhythms, to transfer ideas that might be challenging or theoretically dense, and translate them to something rhythmic, then move forward with the rest of the material. That was my personal challenge in each of these pieces.