For those unfamiliar with the meaning of the title of the gorgeous new album from legendary bassist/composer Buster Williams, Unalome, or the lotus flower-topped symbol that graces its cover – “Unalome” is a Buddhist symbol representing individual transcendence and the path to enlightenment over the course of one’s life.
It is a guiding concept that Williams, a long practicing Buddhist himself, has been exploring throughout his life and career. The idea came vividly to life on his forward-looking new album. “It seemed to express perfectly the mood or the collective spirit of the music on this particular project,” Williams explains. “I believe that your life should be a succession of steps, and that those steps should be along an ascending path.
Due out February 24, 2023 via Smoke Sessions Records, Unalome is the latest step along what has certainly been a storied path. One of the most revered bassists of the last half century, the Grammy-winning Williams has played, recorded, and collaborated with such jazz giants as Art Blakey, Chet Baker, Chick Corea, Dexter Gordon, Jimmy Heath, Larry Coryell, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Sonny Rollins, Count Basie, Errol Garner, Freddie Hubbard, and countless others. He was a charter member of Herbie Hancock’s groundbreaking Mwandishi band and the all-star Thelonious Monk tribute ensemble Sphere.
Williams’ playing has always been remarkable for being as tasteful and nuanced as it is bold and adventurous, which has made him the accompanist of choice for vocal greats like Nancy Wilson, Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, and Sarah Vaughan. Those experiences in part inspired the ensemble that Williams assembled for Unalome, which features vocalist Jean Baylor along with a stellar group featuring saxophonist Bruce Williams, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, pianist George Colligan, and drummer Lenny White.
Along with her husband, drummer Marcus Baylor, Jean co-leads The Baylor Project, whose inspired debut album Be a Light garnered Grammy nominations in both jazz and R&B categories. She also was a pioneer of the neo-soul movement as half of the platinum-selling Motown Records duo Zhané.
Colligan and White have been Williams’ rhythm section of choice for the last two decades, with his relationship with the drummer stretching back even further and including collaborations not only in each other’s bands but in groups led by Wallace Roney, Cyrus Chestnut, and a number of others. Renowned for his membership in the landmark fusion group Return To Forever, White has also served notable tenures with Stanley Clarke, Geri Allen and Larry Coryell. Colligan, meanwhile, has released more than 30 albums as a leader alongside brilliant work with jazz greats like Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield, Ravi Coltrane and Cassandra Wilson.
Besides his longstanding relationship with Buster, Bruce Williams (no relation) has worked with such jazz legends as Little Jimmy Scott, Frank Foster, Stanley Cowell, Curtis Fuller, and Roy Hargrove, and was recruited into the elite ranks of the World Saxophone Quartet. Buster first met Stefon Harris more than 25 years ago at the urging of trombonist Steve Turre, who raved so highly about the young vibraphone wizard that Williams hired him sight unseen for a gig at now-defunct NYC club Sweet Basil.
Unalome begins with Williams’ dazzling original “Stairways,” with Baylor’s wordless vocals fusing beautifully with the frontline on the tune’s optimistic melody. It was one of three pieces the bassist penned especially for the session, another being the aching ballad “In the Middle of a Rainbow.” The memorable melody is one that had been in Williams’ mind for some time, but he dreamed up the lyric on the drive to the studio just before recording. While he’s long been an acclaimed composer, Williams began to find himself as a lyricist more recently – one of the steps along that ascending pathway he’s traveled.
“I used to think that I couldn’t write lyrics,” he says. “I wouldn’t even try. But when I wrote the title track and ‘Air Dancing’ for [the 1989 album] Something More, lyrics started coming to me. I don’t put barriers up anymore to say, ‘I can’t do this.’ I’d rather say, ‘Up till now I haven’t.’ Rather than, you know, I can’t. That’s been part of my growth, and it’s very refreshing because it lets me know that doors are not locked. Doors are there to be opened.”
The third new piece, the ethereal “The Wisdom of Silence,” is one that Williams says is still unfinished, which presents another door still to be opened. “I like that, because I’m excited to see where it’s going to go.” The composer also reached into his back catalogue for “Tayamisha,” a piece named for Williams’ daughter that he originally recorded on the 1975 album Pinnacle and later with both The Timeless All Stars and Sphere. It was revived here at the behest of his bandmates.
The Brazilian classic “Estate” is another piece that Williams associates with The Timeless All Stars, thought not from performing it with the band, which also featured Cedar Walton, Billy Higgins, Harold Land, Bobby Hutcherson, and Curtis Fuller. “We did a summer tour of Italy, and I remember riding in the tour bus through the beautiful landscape full of vineyards and spacious land. We were listening to the brilliant Brazilian guitarist João Gilberto’s album Amoroso, and he sang ‘Estate.’ I just loved it; it became one of my favorites. So when I had the opportunity to have Jean sing on the album, I chose ‘Estate’ and ‘Here’s To Life.’ for her.”
The latter was the signature song of Shirley Horn, another immortal vocalist who Williams worked with. Baylor chose “I’ve Got the World on a String,” while the unusual, moody arrangement of “42nd Street” suggests not the hectic vitality of the metropolis but the alluring romance of life in the city. Williams introduced the song into his repertoire when he was invited to lead the NYC-centric Empire State Building Jazz Orchestra.
At 80 years of age, Buster Williams shows no sign of slowing his climb along that ascending path. Unalome brilliantly reflects how far he’s come while looking eagerly head to future chapters. “As I get older, I discover that there’s more over the horizon than you think,” he declares. “The horizon may look like the end, but the closer you get the more you realize that you’ll never reach it. What you can see from where you are seems to be limited, but with each step you see more and more.”
“Unalome” was produced by Paul Stache and Damon Smith, and recorded live in New York at Sear Sound’s Studio C on a Sear-Avalon custom console at 96KHz/24bit and mixed to 1/2″ analog tape. Available in audiophile HD format.