By Jeff Cebulski
The bassist Buster Williams, one of the most respected jazz musicians in the U.S., if not the world, has probably never played on a bad recording; some potentially bad recordings became tolerable because he played on them. The sound from his resonant double bass upholds a tried-and-true tradition that includes people like Ray Brown.
After landing his first prime spot playing in place of his father (who was also a busy supporting musician) for Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt, Williams became a staple for a number of artists, including a fair number of female vocalists like Nancy Wilson, Betty Carter, Shirley Horn, and Sathima Bea Benjamin. He also played for Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock, Larry Coryell, Kenny Barron, and Harold Land, among many others, over his 62-plus year career.
Lately, Williams, who operates out of NYC, has taken residence within the NYC club Smoke’s household of players, recording his 18th album, Audacity, for the Smoke Sessions label in 2018, and now presenting a new album, Unalome, with his band Something More. Unalome is the term for the Buddhist symbol for transcendence and the path to enlightenment, representing Williams’ practice within Soka Gakkai Buddhism, to which he and his wife Veronica have belonged since the early 70’s. It’s a major reason we still have Williams to listen to, as the calling for personal evolution is one of the sect’s tenets.
On Unalome, Williams sounds as vibrant as ever, playing with longtime colleagues George Colligan on piano and the versatile Lenny White on drums. Adding to Something More are more recently developed stars Stefon Harris on vibes and Bruce Williams (no relation) on sax and flute.
Perhaps more importantly, Williams continues his vocalist tradition by featuring the rising vocalist Jean Baylor, she of the husband-wife team The Baylor Project, whose appearance at last year’s Newport Festival raised audience consciousness. Baylor performed in another Williams ensemble, Mirrors, a few years ago, and Williams has been a mentor in her development as well as several other artists over the years.
This well-produced album includes four Williams compositions, one of them, the ballad “In the Middle of a Rainbow,” involving lyrics, something unusual for him.
The opener, “Stairways,” is a breezy Williams excursion to which Baylor adds wordless vocals. The song gets to swingin’ pretty quickly, as the boss walks his bass into a groove taken up by Bruce Williams and Harris, with the Buster-Lenny pocket as tight as can be. The first of two tributes to Shirley Horn follows; “Estate” is introduced by Williams’ lovely bass line, as Baylor assumes the singer position, not by replicating Horn but by applying her own lovely, upper registered expression.
“Tayamisha” is an older Williams composition replayed by request of the band. Bruce W’s alto leads into an engaging solo from Harris before Bruce takes over with something attuned to Mr. Stitt. Colligan’s bright comping and sparkling solo contribution are highlights. Leader Buster shows off his own dexterity that belies his 90 years.
“Rainbow” pairs Baylor and Harris in a scintillating moment—she should seriously consider having him play behind her forevermore. Buster, here, demonstrates just how a bassist should support a balladeer.
“In the Wisdom of Silence” features a shimmering Harris and Williams setting the table for a Baylor wordless performance. Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s “42nd Street” gets an almost reverent, Broadwayesque treatment, with Colligan providing terrific support, before the tune abruptly changes gear into something soulful, perhaps the most creative offering.
One highlight is a revamped version of the standard “I’ve Got the World on a String.” Baylor’s understated, but profoundly swinging style here is reminiscent of Betty Carter, with Buster pushing the group along that blues trail.
The final tribute to Horn is “Here’s to Life,” where Baylor does channel Shirley a bit, but without Horn’s classic hesitation. One more chance for Buster to showcase his vocalist chops.
This wonderful sounding album (kudos to engineer Christopher Allen on the wonderful mix throughout the recording) fills the room and uplifts the mood considerably. Buster Williams still knows his stuff and gathers great musicians to craft fresh melodies with deep swing. Unalome is one more exceptional effort from a seemingly timeless performer and leader.
Buster Williams, Unalome. Smoke Sessions records, 2023.
Buster Williams, bass
Jean Baylor, vocals
Bruce Willams, sax and flute
Stefon Harris, vibes
George Colligan, piano
Lenny White, drums
About Jeff Cebulski
Jeff Cebulski, who lives in Chicago, is a retired English educator (both secondary and collegiate) and longtime jazz aficionado. His career in jazz includes radio programs at two stations in southeast Wisconsin, an online show on Kennesaw State’s (GA) Owl Radio from 2007 until 2015, and review/feature writing for Chicago Jazz Magazine since 2016, including his column "Jazz With Mr. C". He has interviewed many jazz artists, including Joshua Redman, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, John Beasley, and Chris Brubeck, as well as several Chicago-based players. Jeff is a member of the Jazz Journalists Association. Contact Jeff at email@example.com