After an apprenticeship with Michigan State University’s world-class jazz professors, the young trumpeter from Eaton Rapids graduated last spring. Now he has a debut CD coming out and is set for his first gig, a performance at Perspective 2 studio.
Sitting on a cement slab, taking a break from his “boring” day job, McWilliams looked like a figure in an Edward Hopper painting.
It so happens that Hopper’s famous painting of a diner, “Nighthawks,” is the name of the CD and its title track.
McWilliams said he tried for a “film noir vibe” that matches the forlorn, isolated figures in the painting.
“None of these people are happy,” he said “I wanted to write a song that captured the feeling of going to the diner in the middle of the night, to capture the feeling of grimness and the absurdity of it all.”
McWilliams started on the trumpet at age 9, when his teachers told him to pick either trumpet or baritone sax. He picked trumpet because a baritone sax is so big it’s hard to carry on the bus.
In high school, McWilliams came under the wing of trumpeter Kris Johnson, a stellar graduate of the MSU jazz studies area. McWilliams started to get hooked on jazz when Johnson turned him on to classic recordings of Count Basie, Miles Davis, and other jazz giants.
But McWilliams’ life decisively turned toward jazz when Johnson invited him to a concert by Detroit’s Civic Jazz Orchestra, where Johnson plays and teaches.
“The ensemble totally blew me away,” he said, with awe. “It made me re-think my major.”
McWilliams gravitated to MSU and the high-caliber professors and student camaraderie kept him there.
“The student community was so strong,” he said. “It’s like a family of musicians.”
Among the highlights were music and life lessons with saxophonist Diego Rivera. “His own musical integrity is so strong that just by being around, he pushes everyone around him,” McWilliams said. “He really impressed me.”
Trumpeter Dave Sheetz was another big influence. “He’s played every gig you can imagine,” McWilliams said. “He has studied with the greatest brass pedagogues. “
McWilliams explained that different schools have different approaches to jazz.
“My educational focus has mostly been blues,” he said. “The tradition of hard bop trumpet players and bebop is what MSU is known for.” McWilliams’ primary influence, Miles Davis, was known to play some noir-ish, lonely music in one or two of his many musical phases.
Of course, McWilliams’ gig on Sunday will cover the original, hard bop-inspired tunes on the new CD, but he expects the music to dig deeper.
“In a live performance you can take more risks,” McWilliams said. “My favorite recordings are live because there’s more energy.”
To McWilliams, it’s simple: The more you stretch, the better you play, and a live audience makes you stretch.
“They feed off of your energy and give you something back,” he said. “It’s like a cycle, so you tend to play more.”
One of the musicians accompanying McWilliams during his performance is Jonathan Beshay, an MSU music student and saxophone player who kicked off his musical career at about the same age as McWilliams.
Along with Beshay, McWilliams will be joined by Rob Bickely on bass, Ryan Ptasnik on drums and Ryan Goh on piano.
You can’t spend your whole life at Edward Hopper’s diner. While jazz remains his passion, McWilliams has been dabbling in other kinds of music, including tango. Last summer, he learned tango dancing at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Argentine Tango Club.
“Playing and performing music is remarkably similar to interacting with a dance partner,” he said. “Neither one of you can step on the other’s toes.”
In the coming year, McWilliams hopes to move to New Hampshire to study music with Sheetz, with the ultimate goal of hitting New York.
“The best musicians come from New York City,” McWilliams said. “It’s going to help me make and develop my own musicality.”
He got up from the parking lot, shook dreams of New York out of his head, whacked the dust from his pants, and went back to work.
5 pm. Sunday, Sept. 26 Perspective 2 319 Grand River Ave. $10-15 (517) 853-5880