Since moving from Scranton, Pa., to Brooklyn three and a half years ago, Roy Williams’ musical profile has been on the rise, thanks to playing guitar as a member of French-born Gypsy jazz guitarist Stehpane Wrembel’s band as well as gigs with Fender Telecaster virtuoso Jim Campilongo. The sideman status still intact, Williams is now venturing out as a solo artist, with “Throwing Punches,” the first album released in his own name. With Williams on acoustic guitar, the album is an all-instrumental collection of Williams-penned Western Swing and Gypsy jazz music, as well as ballads that he says are influenced by The Beatles and Brian Wilson more than any instrumental genre. The lead track, “Riding With Roy,” premieres here today.
Last week, we took in the album-release show for “Throwing Punches” at The Living Room in Brooklyn and followed up with a phone interview with Williams while he was in Ithaca, N.Y., for a Wrembel show.
“It’s been an idea in the mix for quite some time, for the last couple of years. I just didn’t have the material,” he says of the solo record. “I’d been playing a ton, all kinds of music; any night of the week there was a gig, rehearsal or just a jam session or whatever. I had planned on doing it, but once you get the idea of putting something out with your own name, with your own songs, with your own arrangements, it’s a bit more intimidating.”
Once he had the songs where he wanted them, Williams recorded at Windmill Agency Recording Studios in Mt. Cobb, Pa., around Halloween of last year in sessions that only lasted a day and a half. He co-produced the album with Windmill’s Eric Ritter and was joined on the recordings by Rob Cuellari (rhythm guitar), Jeff Pickler (bass), Nick Driscoll (clarinet, soprano sax) and Nick Anderson (drums) — “all my favorite people to play music with,” Williams says.
Williams was no studio rookie, of course, having recorded with the aforementioned Wrembel and Campilongo, as well as with Heavy Blonde, And The Moneynotes and The Minor White, but as he says, the stakes were higher this time with his name on the spine of the CD case. Despite the increased pressure, he’s happy with the final product.
“I feel really good because the sound of the album and the playing on it — all the musicians are great,” says Williams. “It was great to record up at Eric Ritter’s there a Windmill Agency studio and I was really happy with the sound he got. I’m really happy about it. In a few months you start second guessing everything and not feeling great about it, but I haven’t gotten there yet.”
Wrembel first came to Williams’ attention when Pappy Biondo of Cabinet told him about play-along tracks on Wrembel’s website — essentially online guitar lessons. While still living in Scranton, Williams, on one of his visits to friend and former Minor White bandmate Kyle Wall in New York, went to see Wrembel perform.
“I had gone to see him when I was just visiting Kyle, and the first night I saw him, he said, ‘Well, sit in and play.’ I was just laughing about it the other day, telling this story; I sat in and played ‘Minor Swing’ (by Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli). I had been playing guitar for a very long time, but I had just scratched the surface with that type of music five years ago.”
At that point, Wrembel had done some workshops in Scranton and played some shows with The Bog Swing Band there. Within a year from Williams’ sit-in, he got a call from Wrembel offering him a spot in his band. The full-time gig has allowed Williams to support himself, maybe something he didn’t foresee when he first played with Wrembel: “When I got thrown into the mix, I was barely holding on,” he shares. “I was scared, but it was cool.”
While “Throwing Punches” has just been released on CD and will be out soon on digital formats, Williams is already looking ahead to his next two solo albums. One will be another batch of instrumental tunes with renowned fiddler player Alex Hargreaves, who is a member of Mike Marshall’s Big Trio and plays with rising Americana star Sarah Jarosz, and the other release will feature Williams on piano and vocals on “singer/songwriter, rock and roll stuff.”