Bassist Buster Williams plays on from bebop to infinity
I was sitting here trying to think of a way to describe Buster Williams’ bass playing in a phrase. Oddly enough, I found it in a dim childhood memory of an Eddy Arnold song about Smokey The Bear. The phrase—"prowlin’ and a-growlin.’ " For me, that sums up Buster’s playing.
Buster Williams grew up in a musical household in Camden New Jersey in the 1940s and '50s. It’s said that he got bitten by the "bass bug" when he heard a recording of "Stardust" by bebop bass pioneer, Oscar Pettiford. So let’s listen to a few bars and see if that factoid might be true.
Yeah, I can see it. The sound of Pettiford’s bass is a lot like the tone Buster would adopt and we hear the bass serving as a more melodic — as opposed to rhythmic — presence in the song So, sure…why not.
In the early '60s, Buster Williams began working in bands led by singers, including Betty Carter, Dakota Staton and Sarah Vaughn—as well as a stint with the original incarnation of the Joe Sample’s Jazz Crusaders. Things really started popping for him, though, when in 1968, he began working with pianist Herbie Hancock in Herbie’s experimental fusion band, Mwandishi.
Buster’s first recording as a lead was in 1975—a fusion release called Pinnacle, but, since I’ve never had much of an ear for jazz/rock fusion, it was my love for saxophonist, Charlie Rouse, that brought Buster Williams to the forefront of my mind when, in ’77, Rouse formed the group Sphere.
For over 10 years, Charlie Rouse worked as the saxophonist in the Thelonious Monk Quartet. In the late '70s, as the pianist’s life became more complicated by mental and physical illnesses, Rouse wanted to keep Monk’s music alive, so he formed a group called Sphere. that would focus on Monk’s music and the spirit in which it was made. Sphere is quite literally Monk’s middle name. Along with another Monk Quartet alumnus, drummer Ben Riley, the band included pianist Kenny Barron and our man, Buster.
Here’s a glimpse of what Sphere sounded like. It’s a song written by Rouse, very much in the spirit of Monk, called "Pumpkin’s Delight." I just love the tension between the melody and the rhythm.
In his long career, Buster has played with many of the great players in jazz. His albums as a leader have always pushed the boundaries of the music. He’s been Grammy-nominated and has received composition grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Since 1972, Buster has been a practicing Nicherin Buddhist and there’s now a documentary film about his life, philosophy and music called Buster Williams, From Bass To Infinity. Play on, Buster Williams, play on.