There’s something about the presence of a vocalist that seeps inside of Buster Williams’ soul and reverberates through his bass. Case in point, his cover of Shirley Horn’s signature song, “Here’s to Life,” on his latest effort, Unalome [Smoke Sessions Records]. With vocalist Jean Baylor purring poignantly, Williams’ support lines are equal parts anchor and countermelody, sometimes a response to Baylor’s call, other times setting up her next vocal phrase. When he arrives at his solo, his inner crooner emerges with a memorable theme that he delivers and develops using vibrato, varied note durations, phrases that stretch the beat before resolving rhythmically, and expressive slides in and out of notes.
Joining Baylor—who appears on seven of Unalome’s eight tracks—are longtime Buster bandmates George Colligan on piano and Lenny White on drums, plus frequent collaborators vibraphonist Stefon Harris and saxophonist Bruce Williams (no relation). Together they remain steeped in the tradition Williams brings—including his noted stints with Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Dexter Gordon, McCoy Tyner, and Ron Carter, as well as vocal giants Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, Nancy Wilson, Carmen McRae, and Shirley Horn—while also embracing the Buddhist-practicing Williams’ quest to keep moving forward. The spry, quick-witted son of Camden, New Jersey, who remains based in the area, was more than happy to discuss his new recording.
Did you have a concept for the record, and how does it relate to the title?
There wasn’t a concept per se, but I knew I wanted vocals on the record, and I always like the addition of Stefon and Bruce joining my long-standing rhythm section with Lenny and George. As for Unalome [Oo-na-loom], I was having trouble coming up with a title and my daughter introduced the word to me, and it struck a chord. I like the idea of what it stands for. It’s a lotus flower-topped Hindu symbol that represents individual transcendence and the path to enlightenment, which aligns with my Buddhist beliefs that your life should be a succession of steps, and that those steps should be along an ascending path.
The opener, “Stairways,” has a beautiful melody delivered by Jean Baylor’s wordless vocals. How did that did that come to you?
It’s something that came into my head and I laid my hands down on the piano and that’s how I brought it to life. Mostly, I compose on piano, but I might get an idea from something I play on the bass, or an idea will pop into my mind and I’ll flesh it out on piano, like I did here. As for the wordless vocal, I’ve always enjoyed that in jazz but you need a special voice. Jean has that kind of special voice where she becomes another instrument.
When you bring in your music to record, how much of it is arranged and how much is it letting your band develop their parts?
I’ll only notate as little as I need to describe to them what I’m looking for, and then I trust them to come up with their parts. Especially with George and Lenny, they know how I think so I don’t have to spell everything out. Actually, the real benefit of having the same band for over twenty years is that I can write with them on mind and know what they’re going to do with the music.
You revive your song “Tayamisha,” which is named for your daughter.
Yes, it’s been recorded a number of times. It’s on my first date as a leader, Pinnacle [Muse 1975], and I recorded it with Mary Lou Williams on a trio date with [drummer] Micky Roker. I’ve been asked about that song a lot lately, many of my students request it, and the band wanted me to do it on this record. We took it up in tempo because that’s how it felt at the time.
“In the Middle of a Rainbow” features your lyric writing.
When I first began writing for the record, the opening melodic phrase came to me, followed by the title phrase when I randomly put words to it. I didn’t have the song completed until the day we recorded it. Driving home from the first day in the studio, some lyrics started forming in my head, and driving to the studio the next day they fleshed out some more. Finally, before that day’s session started, I sat down and finished it. So what you’re hearing is the first time anyone heard and played the song. My first attempt at writing lyrics was in the ’80s when I was doing a record for a Japanese vocalist and she wanted to record mostly my compositions. I had never attempted lyric-writing before, so I challenged myself and they didn’t sound too bad! I try to write lyrics that tell a story. I knew from playing with Sarah [Vaughan] and Betty [Carter] and Nancy [Wilson] how much lyrics meant to them. A lot of songs they sang were because of the lyrics more than the music. If a song didn’t apply to their life experience they wouldn’t sing it.
“The Wisdom of Silence” is intriguing, both in it’s rubato-like feel and your statement that it’s an unfinished song.
I like presenting it that way because it’s a mystery. I don’t know where it’s going to go from here but I’m expecting it to tell me what to do. That’s how I came up with the title: the wisdom is in the silence until the next part emerges. In the same way that we hope that tomorrow exists but we don’t know for sure, and further, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. It also ties into the Unalome concept in that as I grow more, the tune will, as well.
Two of your covers, “Estaté” and “Here’s to Life,” are associated with Shirley Horn, who you gigged and recorded with.
I wanted to do both songs not necessarily as a tribute to Shirley but because she put such a stamp on them. I chose “Here’s to Life” for Jean and there are no drums on the track because I wanted it to be a story—an interaction between piano, voice, and bass. And I’ve always loved “Estaté” for the same reason: the lyrics, the music, and the mood tell a great story. I could hear Jean interpeting it in my head, and it turned out just as good as I thought it would be.
Those tracks contain some of your most lyrical playing on the record.
I like to play lyrically and melodically. I have an infinity to a good vocal, I guess from playing with so many great vocalists. It allows a musical door to open for me that I really like to walk through. Of course, whatever song you’re playing, you need to have the melody in your head the whole time. And if the song has a lyric and I know it, I can hear that when I’m playing, as well. There’s the famous story of [saxophonist] Ben Webster recording a beautiful ballad, and all of a sudden he stops. The engineer says, “Ben, it was going so well, why did you stop?! And Ben says, “I forgot the lyric!”
Your other two covers are “I’ve Got the World on a String” and an interesting take on “42nd Street,” with some heavy pocket drumming by Lenny White.
I wanted Jean to do something straightahead and she choose “String.” She’s such a gifted vocalist; she delivers it very naturally and totally uncontrived. “42nd Street” came from a project I did in 2005 called You’ll Take Manhattan by the Empire Jazz Orchestra, for the 75th Anniversary of the Empire State Building. I came up with a very different take on the song, at a slower tempo. I was going to revive it for this record, but my band suggested we update the arrangement for the times we’re living in now, which led to Lenny’s funky backbeat approach.
Can we talk about the period where you played electric bass? What led you to the instrument?
I don’t recall exactly how it began. I know Herbie [Hancock] started including electric piano in his music and he wanted me to play some electric bass. At the same time I got into the jingle scene in New York City, which was going strong, and a lot of those calls required electric bass. I bought a Fender Jazz Bass and later I remember endorsing Ibanez basses—I still have a couple—and Polytone amps. On the record side I was playing it on albums by Herbie [Fat Albert Rotunda, Mwandishi, Crossings, and Sextant], the Jazz Crusaders [Give Peace a Chance], Harold Mabern [Greasy Kid Stuff!], Eddie Henderson [Realization and Inside Out], and Harold Land [Damisi], and I even featured it on a track from my 1975 debut album, Pinnacle [“The Hump”]. I liked it and got pretty good at it, coming up with funk lines. I recall a lot of electric players coming to check me out in clubs at the time, so maybe I influenced some of them. I probably played it over a five or six year period but it never replaced the upright for me. What I love about the acoustic bass is what I have to do to get music out of it. The sound I get depends all on me, not the help of an amp. The instrument relates to my heart; it’s alive, it has emotion, it’s not just a piece of wood. But I very much appreciate electric bassists like Stanley Clarke, Jaco, Anthony Jackson, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten, and Christian [McBride] and Derrick [Hodge] when they play it. I wouldn’t dare pick one up now, around the players today [laughs].
As you cruise through your 80th year, what lies ahead in 2023 and beyond?
I’m going to do gigs with my band in support of this record. I’m thinking about my next one already; I want to get it out sooner than the previous ones—there’s a little too much time between projects for me. I’m also thinking about starting my book biography and maybe a method book, too. I’m fortunate to be teaching a lot. I have positions at the Manhattan School of Music and The New School, instructing private students and ensembles. There’s still so much to do and I consider it an honor and a blessing to have the opportunity. I take it seriously and cherish it. In any career you encounter all of these winding roads, and trials and tribulations, but you continue to move in an ascending manner and strive to fill your potential. That’s what I’m still doing. The key is to look for encouragement not just from within but by what we’ve been able to achieve and overcome. That’s the inspiration to take another step forward.
Buster Williams’ haunting Unalome ballad, “The Wisdom of Silence,” is a study in melodic theme and development and ascending parallel harmonies, made all the more vocal by Jean Baylor doubling the wordless melody the second time through. The rubato piece is led by Buster’s bass, with the quarter-note pickup at the end of measures 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 11, 12, 14 and 15 serving as an unaccompanied cue for the next chord change. Harmonically the tune is constructed of descending minor-seventh chords, except for the resolution chords in bars 9 and 16. The interesting development is that in the first eight measures the tonality is natural minor or Aeolian, thus the b6 added to the chords, and the corresponding notes in bars 3, 6, and 8. In measures 10-16 the tonality switches to Dorian or natural minor with a raised (major) sixth, as reflected by the notes in bars 11 and 14. Take your time playing the melody, with stopping points for “breaths” on the downbeat of measures 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 12, 13, 15, and 16.
Basses: Hawkes Panormo, circa 1938: “While I was on tour in London with Sarah Vaughan, opposite Count Basie, I went to Boosey and Hawkes music store in Piccadilly Circus and saw it. I got back to the hotel and told Sarah I had found my dream bass, and she gave me the money to buy it. It’s between a 3/4 and 7/8 bass, with a beautiful varnish, wide shoulders, and a thick neck.” David Gage Czech Ease Travel Bass; piccolo bass built by the late Frederick Lyman.
Strings: La Bella 7710T White Nylon Tapewound Double Bass
Bow: Pfretzchner and Seifert German-style bows
Amp: Epifani UL 901 head and UL 112 cabinet