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Buster Williams: Ready for His Close-Up

In a new documentary, the revered bassist definitively takes the spotlight

Buster Williams
Buster Williams (photo: Adam Kahan)

“I don’t think I’m underrated. Whatever rating I get, I deserve … I know I’m valuable. And I know I have something to say.”

“I remember the first time I heard Buster play that gigantic Hawkes bass unamplified,” fellow Philly bassist Christian McBride recalls. “It almost broke down the walls in the place. On the one hand, when you plug that bass in and the natural sound of that instrument gets changed, a part of you wonders, ‘Why would you want to change that gorgeous sound?’ But he worked hard to develop a recognizable, personal, effective sound through his amplifier, through his pickup, through his strings.”

“Usually when you hear Buster on a record, you know it’s him,” says George Colligan, who—along with Eric Reed and Patrice Rushen—has been Williams’ pianist of choice for the past two decades. “His sound touches on the amplified context of the ’70s and ’80s, with a distinct sustain, but he also leans to a classic bass sound. His rhythmic approach is unique, with an organic quarter-note feel that’s filled with humanity. Of course, his soloing is singular, and he’s very advanced harmonically, so when he accompanies you won’t hear just roots and chord tones. His lines are like a solo, but it enhances the music. It makes it go in different directions.”

“As the music got more experimental in the ’60s and throughout the ’70s, Buster was right there with that abstraction, but he also kept his ground with grits-and-gravy swinging,” McBride adds. “If Buster did nothing else in his career, you could just use his work in Mwandishi—the band swung, was funky, was acoustic, was electric, was spiritual, was socially conscious—to show what an advanced yet rooted musician he was.”

All the aforementioned flavors infuse Williams’ first recordings as a bandleader. On Pinnacle (1975), Crystal Reflections (1976), and Heartbeat (1978), he documents 10 original pieces (augmenting the five he’d recorded during his West Coast stay on three albums by the Jazz Crusaders). Each date bears out McBride’s observation that Williams gleaned “a classic, timeless sense of melody” from his years backing up star singers. McBride continues: “Melody can often be overlooked in the jazz world, but Buster never did, either in his playing or in his composing.”

On the first two dates—whose collective personnel includes Roy Ayers, Woody Shaw, Sonny Fortune, Earl Turbinton, Onaje Allan Gumbs, Jimmy Rowles, Kenny Barron, Ben Riley, and Billy Hart—the ambience code-switches from trippy backbeats to fierce swinging to Great American Songbook reflection. On Heartbeat Williams leads Barron and Riley for two trio cuts; Gayle and Pat Dixon enhance two other pieces with (respectively) violin and cello, springboarding on the leader’s association with Ron Carter’s quartet.

“Ron would tell me that we try to create problems for ourselves in the midst of a performance, and solve the problem at the same time,” Williams says of that five-year, three-album association. “If you don’t create problems, you don’t have one to solve, and if you don’t solve problems you aren’t learning something new.”

Williams’ bandmates on Audacity testify that he practices this dictum on the bandstand. “Buster’s book is difficult to play,” Lenny White says. “His tunes don’t have standard movement because of the notes he hears, but they’re beautiful. His music isn’t just regular straight-ahead 4/4 jazz. We’ve created a mutual trust over the years, and to trust someone else is the highest dynamic you can have. I’m willing to take a chance and he’s willing to follow—and vice versa.”

“His tunes are harmonically challenging; you have to study the band if you want to get on his gig,” Colligan cosigns. “But like a lot of the older cats, he’d rather you figure out how to do it from listening to them and letting the music grow organically—to communicate non-verbally with like-minded people.”

On Audacity, Williams expressed that trust by including a tune from each band member (White, Colligan, and saxophonist Steve Wilson), in addition to four previously unrecorded originals from his 60-composition corpus. “I like things that are scripted and things that are not scripted,” he says. “A lot depends on who you’re playing with and how long you’ve been playing together. For example, what we did with Mwandishi, you can’t get up on the bandstand and do that with just anybody. It becomes what it is without you even knowing it. When I can get my band working again after this pandemic, it’s going to be something even more exciting.”

While waiting for the world to reopen, Williams is “making a living on Zoom four or five hours a day, sometimes even more,” giving classes at the New School and Manhattan School of Music, and to various private students. Between sessions, he practices. “I struggle with being deliberate and focused enough not to miss those opportunities,” he says on our Zoom call, before pointing to a piano to his left. “I jump on my bass and play some, then work on a piece on the piano, then come back to the computer and enter it into Sibelius to hear what it sounds like and make sure I’m writing down everything I’ve done, or else I’ll forget it.”

At 78, Williams’ quotidian discipline, his ethos of a self-imposed “sense of responsibility that I must fulfill,” perhaps accounts for—as McBride describes it—“the sheer physicality” of his bass playing. “Only a few people have the fountain of youth thing happening,” McBride says. “Ron Carter still sounds the way he sounded 40 years ago. Buster is like that. He hasn’t lost a thing. Nobody sounds like him or feels like him or writes like him. He’s a special musician, all across the board.”

Colligan and White both believe that Williams has received insufficient recognition for his talents. To these ears, Williams implies that he agrees when he explains why he told Kahan that he’d participate in the documentary only if he were the sole subject.

“I was ready to be approached,” he says. “I was ready to be documented. I was ready to be the focus of attention. I felt that it was due. It wasn’t something that I would necessarily express, because I don’t have that kind of hubris. But when he expressed this interest, it just snapped: ‘Okay, this is the time.’ What I was feeling inside was being matched.

“I can’t say that I feel undervalued as much as I feel it’s all a matter of time. I hear people talk about ‘unsung heroes’ or ‘being underrated.’ I don’t think I’m underrated. Whatever rating I get, I deserve. Those who like what I do, I strive to be worthy of it. Those who would like me to do better … well, I’ve got no problem with that too, because that’s my own personal quest. I know I’m valuable. And I know I have something to say, and I am always striving to perfect what I say. But I think that whatever one is due will be done.” Originally Published

Ted Panken

Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz and creative music for various publications, and programmed jazz and creative music on WKCR-FM in New York City from 1985 through 2008. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article “Smalls Universe,” published by DownBeat, and earned the Jazz Journalists’ Association 2016 Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism award. His blog, Today Is The Question, contains over 260 of his articles and verbatim interviews.