Recording Date: Feb 5, 2004
Bassist Buster Williams and his quartet perform six of his originals plus two standards on Griot Liberte. Williams' songs range from the modal "Nomads" and the medium-tempo blues "Related to One" (which includes some complex transitions) to the lyrical ballad "The Triumphant Dance of the Butterfly" and the swinging "Joined at the Hip," which has George Colligan's best solo of the set. Williams takes plenty of solos but is also generous in featuring vibraphonist Stefon Harris and pianist Colligan with drummer Lenny White being stimulating in support. There are times (particularly during "Related to One") when the group sounds a bit like the Modern Jazz Quartet, but other selections find the musicians showing more individuality. They are very much in tune with each other and, although not a touring group, sound as if they play together very regularly. Excellent modern mainstream jazz.
-Scott Yanow (All Music Guide)
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"I don't like a CD or album that contains all good songs or performances, but with no connection between them," says bassist Buster Williams.
Based on those criteria, Williams ought to favor his most recent album, Griot Liberte, for a compelling back story links the eight originals and a standard that comprise it Although the term was on Williams' mind as far back as 2000, when he was in the process of conceiving the music for Houdini [Sirocco], a trio album with pianist Geri Allen and drummer Lenny White, the music didn't come to fruition at the time.
"My music, whether I like it or not, always expresses what's going on in my life-the way I see things from day to day, how my perceptions change, what's meaningful and less meaningful," Williams says. "Last December, my wife went into the hospital, and her illness allowed me to see the meaning of things. When she came out of intensive care, one of the first things she said is that she saw the Phoenix rise from the ashes. It was like she had been reborn. She told everyone how her campaign has been to reinvent herself, and she felt like a caterpillar that had turned into a butterfly. All of this fit with the concept I was feeling with 'griot liberte.'
"The griot is this storyteller that liberates the soul and the spirit. To be liberated is to express yourself as you see it, to have no qualms, to be able to lay your head down on your pillow at night and go to sleep instantly because your day has been fulfilled with victory. The real victory we seek is how to defeat our own devils- our own limitations. That's what my wife presented to me, and 'griot liberte' came alive. Liberty. Freedom. And what am I? Yeah, I'm the storyteller! When she came home, I said, 'She's okay; I can focus on this music,' and it started to come out."
At 61, Williams has told vivid stories in notes and tones for more than four decades. A professional since 1959, when he worked around Philadelphia in a Jimmy Heath-led quartet with drum legend Specs Wright and pianist Sam Dockery, he went on the road with Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt at 18, and never looked back. "I was always the youngest guy in the band," he jokes. "It's only now that I'm the old guy." He sidemanned with a who's-who of modern jazz-Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughan, Dakota Staton, Betty Carter, the Jazz Crusaders, Miles Davis, Herbie Mann, Art Blakey, Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi, Ron Carter, Kenny Barron, and Cedar Walton, to name a few-and co-founded the collective quartet Sphere. He's also led a dozen or so dates of his own.
"Those jobs all are my invaluable treasures," he says. "They shaped me, set me up for what I'm trying to do now. It would be hard to say which was my most important or most prized gig, because each person gave me something new and different."
Through such experiences, Williams internalized the overarching importance of ensemble imperatives and a tabula rasa approach to nightly performance.
"I want the band to have a great collective sound," he remarks. "I'm not looking to stand out. I'm looking for interaction, to have each person throw something into the pot and make something that could not otherwise exist. I'm always looking for things to sound different and take on the nuances of the new moment. I don't want new personnel to be influenced by what was done before. What happened yesterday, I don't even want to hear that again. When I played with Miles, the most amazing thing to me was that, night after night, we had to find something totally different to play on the same songs. I never had a rehearsal with Miles. The same thing with Herbie Hancock. Today is a new day, and you've experienced new things today, so why should the music be the same as last night?
"As a bass player, I have a responsibility for holding things together rhythmically and harmonically. My vantage point is unlike anyone else. So when I decided to be a bandleader, it wasn't difficult in terms of concept and vision. Betty Carter really encouraged me. She told me, 'You want to lead a band? Just make sure it swings.' I never forgot that. But the difficulty-even as successful as I was as a sideman-was in establishing myself with clubowners or entrepreneurs. There's always that question, 'Well, who's in the front line?' One reason why Ron Carter created a band in which he played piccolo bass was so he could be the front line. In that regard, I feel more of a blend with vibes than I do with saxophone or trumpet. The vibes are lush and romantic and sensitive. I want to express a certain softness in my music, and vibes allow me to do that."
Williams's past vibraphone partners include Roy Ayres, Bobby Hutcherson and Steve Nelson. Griot Liberte is Williams' third recording with 32-year-old mallet master Stefon Harris, whom he hired for a job at Manhattan's Sweet Basil in 1996 on the recommendation of trombonist Steve Turre. "Stefon is like a sponge that is ready, willing and able to absorb information, and he knows how to distil it and turn it into his own invention," Williams says. "He's still finding his way. But he's matured beautifully, and he never goes for flash in sacrifice of substance. The openness he brings to the bandstand is remarkable."
Ubiquitous on the New York scene since he relocated from Washington, D.C., in 1995, pianist George Colligan makes his recorded debut with Williams. He receives similar praise from the maestro. "George played with me in a trio when he was living in Washington. Like Stefon, he's wide-open and has brilliant ears. The way I want to play, you've got to have ears. If you're not listening, you won't know where you are."
Williams' drummer of choice since 1996 is Lenny White, a generational peer. They lock in with such smooth synchronicity that a listener could overlook how much content they play. "Lenny makes everything effortless," Williams enthuses. "For one thing, he gets such a pristine ride cymbal beat. If Lenny never played anything else and just played the ride cymbal, I'd be satisfied. You'd be surprised how many drummers don't really give the ride cymbal its importance-especially some of the new drummers today. See, one of the reasons I have a band is so that I can play the way I want. What I do from the first note is my concept of what I think a band should be. It's not something I've necessarily spent a lot of time thinking about. I know what I'm looking for, but at the same time, nothing is preconceived. Lenny allows me to really be myself."
On "Nomads," which opens the recital, White propels affirmative solos by Harris and Colligan with his own version of the loose 6/8 feel against the four that Elvin Jones made famous when he and Williams were still apprenticing. Think of the lyric Williams wrote when he composed it in the early '90s: "In the dark of night, traveling o'er the desert sands, on their way to some distant land, never knowing where they're going, looking for a home, all their fortune lost, tattered clothes and broken hearts, still they live to rebuild their dream, hoping that the gods lead them to their home. Passion burning bright, never giving in to pain, nothing left but their struggles gained. Soon the dawn will come, a new land they'll call their own..."
"Related to One" is a challenging 12-bar blues in two keys, with "an 8-bar section before the blues begins that's based on the relative minor to the major key that the blues will be in." Williams has built walking basslines on thousands of blues forms over the years, and spurs his partners to blow concise, down-home solos; he wraps with a few authoritative solo choruses that channel his "Blues Up and Down" days with Stitt and Ammons.
Over White's rolling beat, Harris swings the melody on the opening section of "The Triumphant Dance Of The Butterfly," before stating a lyric ballad section. "I wrote the ballad section first," Williams says. "When I wrote the melody, I heard a lyric that went, 'Why should I try to convince you, when I know that you don't really care?' It became a joke between us! When my wife came out of the hospital, I worked on the song again, and this other stuff came out. It sounded to me like the triumphant dance of the caterpillar turning into the butterfly." Keep that image before you as you listen to Williams' resonant, well-wrought solo and beautiful bassline, springboarding Harris and Colligan into concise, to-the-point testimonials.
The overtones Harris elicits when stating the theme of "The Wind Of An Immortal Soul"-based on a sequence of chords that share a bass pedal-evokes the aura of Bobby Hutcherson. "Each chord is structured differently, so that each bar creates a different harmony, a different sound, a different emotion, a different description," says Williams. "In Greek mythology, immortal souls took on the wind as their body. The wind travels anywhere. It has no barriers. It can take the shape of anything it wants." Before stating his own unfettered declamation, Williams follows that principle in supporting Colligan and Harris through cogent, ascendant solos.
Williams plays a ravishing solo on "Every Time We Say Goodbye," a song he grew intimate with during his tenure with Betty Carter. "I reharmonized it, which fit the concept," he says. "Every day I'd see my wife in the hospital, and then have to say goodbye."
"Joined At The Hip" is a straightahead form with a Bobby Hutcherson feel on which Harris imprints his own stamp. The changes, Williams notes, are very difficult. "It wasn't contrived, it just came out that way," he says. "The title is self-explanatory. When you're joined at the hip, that's it forever. Can't do anything about that."
Williams' majestic solo piccolo bass variation on "Concierto de Aranjuez" is dedicated to the late Pascual Olivera, a good friend. "Pascual was a great flamenco dancer," Williams eulogizes. "He had fourth stage cancer, had 14 chemo treatments, and totally destroyed all the cancer. But a year later, it came back. When he overcame the cancer, he and his wife Angela went on tour and did their victory dance to 'Concierto de Aranjuez.'"
Griot Liberte concludes with "After the Ninth Wave." "There's a 9-10-foot painting by a Russian painter in the Fuji Art Museum in Japan of three or four sailors floating on the mast portion of a ship that has been destroyed by the ocean's waves," Williams says. "They're facing this gigantic wave, and the sun is behind it. If they can overcome this wave, they can be victorious. So this last piece is very serene and calming. It describes to me the feeling of ease and calmness after going through the ninth wave, when all your senses are vibrating at the highest level. You've survived, you've accomplished what you went after, and you're seeing something that's even more vivid than what you had envisioned, it's like a prayer of thanks."
It's a fitting end to an album on which the creative juices were flowing. "For me it's an ongoing challenge to work outside the box and avoid the barriers that the studio presents," Williams says. "I don't know if I could maintain the creative level if it were not for the stress." Told it sounds stress-free and spontaneous, he responds with an old-school dictum of comportment in the performing arts. "My father told me a long time ago, 'Never let them see you sweat.' That's professionalism."