September 2003

New York Yankees’ Bernie Williams: Doing the Bernie Shuffle

For a guy who could probably purchase the entire jazz industry if it displeased him, New York Yankees centerfielder Bernie Williams seems genuinely cowed by the musicians who helped him assemble his debut album, a showpiece for his guitar skills called The Journey Within (GRP). “Playing with people who play guitar for a living is very intimidating for me,” says the soft-spoken Williams, chilling in Tampa while he rehabilitates his knee. It shouldn’t be, though: Williams’ off-field chops are nearly as impressive as his lifetime batting average (a smoking .307). And unlike, say, the braintrust behind “The Superbowl Shuffle,” The Journey Within’s crew comprises some of the best musicians working today—Béla Fleck, for example, as well as David Benoit, Rubén Blades and even turkey-necked Saturday Night Live bassist T-Bone Wolk.

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Williams originally planned to be a musician and attended the island’s Escuela Libre de Musica before his baseball skills brought him to major league scouts’ attention in his teens. “It was always something that came naturally to me,” Williams says of the guitar. He recalls fondly “doing my homework, changing into my other clothes and every Thursday sprinting to my guitar class” at eight years old. “But it wasn’t till I went to music high school when I was in ninth grade that I really developed some technique.” Julian Bream, John Williams, Andrés Segovia and Pepe Romero remain heavy influences, though Williams notes that since arriving in the States, he’s become interested in blues, jazz and rock as well, citing B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Mike Stern and many others as guitarists he admires. “My philosophy is that if it’s well-made, and it’s challenging to the ear, I will listen to it.”

It would have been easy for Williams to phone in his parts for The Journey Within—or just record 10 radio-friendly covers like his version of Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind”—but that’s really not his style. The first thing he says about his record is, “I’m never happy with my work—I always think I can do better.” But even for someone who hadn’t happened to have been pursuing a career as one of the best switch-hitters who’s ever played the game, his songwriting on Journey is impressive. The opener, “La Salsa en Mi,” is “the most developed tune,” he says. “That took maybe five or six years just thinking about it, playing and then just leaving it alone.” It’s certainly the best song on the album, and Williams graciously and frequently shares the spotlight with a Wowsville percussion section (including first-call studio dude Bashiri Johnson, Cuban bandleader Luis Conte and John Mellencamp’s former drummer Kenny Aronoff—you know, the bald guy from the “Pink Houses” video) and peppy backing vocals.

“Stranded on the Bridge” was written, Williams said, after “I was riding my motorcycle and I got stuck, and I couldn’t turn it on again. All I could think was the second hand on the clock going tick-tick-tick-tick, and people were honking their horns, and the desperation of getting out of the way.” And indeed his band captures the onomatopoetic genesis of the song, guitars wailing like angry Camrys and the band grooving like a mid-’70s Quincy Jones TV theme. “Para Don Berna” was written for Williams’ late father, a merchant marine and a living room guitar player. It’s languid and bittersweet; Williams says it “came out of all these feelings toward his funeral and is a celebration of his life and being. Sort of a ‘thank you’ for all the things he had done for us.”

Williams sees parallels between playing guitar and baseball. “I’ve been fortunate enough to play at the highest level that I can possibly play in baseball,” he says. “It’s a product of hard work and discipline, practicing my skills and making sure they’re sharp all the time. I’m always thinking that I’ll have something new to learn in baseball, and guitar’s the same way. No matter how much you think you know, there’s always going to be somebody who knows more than you. I think that sort of attitude keeps you always reaching, trying to take it over the limit.”

Still, he thinks his teammates probably aren’t going to be wild about The Journey Within’s smooth, Latin-jazz vibe: “I don’t want to say the music is easy listening,” he says, laughing, “but I think it appeals to a jazzy, laid-back crowd, and my teammates like the hard rock and the rap. I’ll probably have the most aggravation from Derek [Jeter].” And what about Massachusetts, Bernie? You think you’ll sell a single album north of Connecticut? “I tell you what,” he says. “Boston fans, as far as baseball, they’re very noticeable on hating the Yankees, but they’re very good as far as appreciating good baseball, whether it’s being played by the Yankees or by the Red Sox. And I certainly hope that it would translate somewhat to music!”

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