“… So when it came to Coltrane I was like, Oh my God, I didn’t even know the saxophone could do these things! I never knew you could play those combinations, I never knew you could play chords; I never knew you could play multi-phonics in this way… And then he had something much greater than that, which was depth, spiritual depth.” – Steve Williamson
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
Misunderstood, mis-judged and most definitely mercurial, tenor/soprano saxophonist, composer and band leader Steve Williamson has been stretching the boundaries of the Jazz music idiom ever since he exploded onto the UK and worldwide scene over twenty years ago with his groundbreaking debut album, ‘A Waltz For Grace.’ Well, Mr. Williamson is officially back having made a couple of rare appearances in 2014, most notably at the Royal Festival Hall, where he joined many of his peers, to perform ‘Enlightenment – A re-envisioning of John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme,’ which concluded James Lavelle’s Meltdown Festival.
Since we talked, Mr. Williamson has performed with a hand-picked ‘Steve Williamson Band’ to critical and public acclaim at Pizza Express, Soho, London on Tuesday 1st September 2014. It was Williamson’s first live performance and exposure of any new material in several years. It was with this gig in mind, that the interview averse Mr. Williamson had agreed to sit down with Michael J Edwards to explain first-hand why he has chosen now to make his long-awaited return, as well as what he’s been up to in the interim years, his contemporaries, his thoughts on Jazz music and artists past, present and future and offers a privileged insight into the mind of the man himself and his music.
Michael J Edwards: Mr. Steve Williamson, It’s a pleasure to link with you at long last. How prominent was music in the Williamson household growing up, parental influences etc?
Steve Williamson: I would say pretty much extremely. First off in the household itself, my dad was an avid collector of 45’s from back in the day. So I listened to James Brown, he made me listen to the Big Payback. He’d get the big box out from the attic, take it down every now and then, a group of 45’s and play them. I listened to everything man, Dionne Warwick, Mahalia Jackson, Al Green, Ahmed Jamal.
Michael J Edwards: And this was soaking into you from what age?
Steve Williamson: From about five maybe upwards. Jim Reeves, Mario Lanza. My mother used to listen to Mario Lanza and Dionne Warwick. So I had all of this and on top of that I pretty much had my own ideas about it all.
Michael J Edwards: Where did your parents originate?
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
Steve Williamson: My parents are Jamaican. Just to elaborate slightly more on that last point. When I was younger I used to fix transistor radios, because I was always into electronics. In fact, for about three or four Christmases in a row I asked for an electronics kit, which you could buy in those days – you would make little things and put them together and then the light-bulb lit up. I was fascinated by this. I used to fix these transistor radios, I used to knock on my neighbour’s door when I was about ten or eleven and asked if they had a transistor radio I could fix, because for some reason it just made sense to me.
I used to have quite a few of them, and then I would take the speakers out and wrap them with toilet paper and foam and all sorts of stuff, tie it with an elastic band and put it under my pillow. So my dad didn’t even know, when he walked in the room he thought I was sleeping. But I was laying down on the pillow and all night listening to music. I used to listen to Radio Invicta in those days. Radio Luxembourg.
Michael J Edwards: And this was circa?
Steve Williamson: This was during the late seventies/early eighties. I started hearing a lot Jazz Funk, guys like John Serry – his music was really angular. I remember him very well. I also remember hearing artists like Sadao Watanabe and all these amazing Japanese players. I was listening to this music endlessly every night.
Michael J Edwards: So all this is going into your subconscious, and you no doubt fell asleep listening to the radio?
Steve Williamson: Yes, for sure.
Michael J Edwards: Was saxophone the first instrument you learnt when you started out, or did you graduate via record and clarinet?
Steve Williamson: When I was at school I played clarinet for a short while; that was the first instrument the clarinet. Funnily enough, what most people don’t know, because I’ve never actually said it in any interview, the very first instrument I had was an accordion. I was a child, but I really liked the idea of an instrument that can do that and playing the keyboard that way. So that was actually the first instrument my dad bought me. Then when I went to school I played the clarinet, and I started saxophone when I left school at sixteen.
Michael J Edwards: Archie Shepp said the saxophone might be slightly easier to play because with the clarinet you have to cover the holes your fingers, whereas the saxophone has hoods.
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
Steve Williamson: That’s right. Most saxophone players I respect to be honest, from Michael Brecker to Shabaka (Hutchings), they have played clarinet before they’ve even thought about going to the saxophone… When you play the clarinet it’s got open holes on the keys, but it’s got a similar fingering system; it’s called the Boehm fingering system. It is similar fingering system, but more disciplined, because you have to make sure you cover all the holes. Definitely I knew around that time that clarinet was the best instrument to learn before you went onto saxophone.
Michael J Edwards: As you alluded to, you started applying yourself properly to the saxophone at age sixteen?
Steve Williamson: I know this might sound cheesy, but I literally started applying myself one hundred percent to it as soon as I picked up.
Michael J Edwards: So who inspired you, and who was your first teacher at that time?
Steve Williamson: The actual reason why is this – my father had one in his attic. My eldest brother Ray, he wanted to play it for a while, so he put a band together. They played on Sundays, but he didn’t stick with it, it wasn’t really what he wanted to do. My dad said he would pass it down sort of thing, but it was in the attic. As a child, about seven years old, I used to go there when he had left the house and would go there, open up the case and look at this amazing shiny thing… So when I was sixteen he said to me, “You can have it, you can have the saxophone!” And that was it!
Michael J Edwards: So that was your birthdays and Christmases all rolled into one?
Steve Williamson: Yeah! From that day I practiced every day for ten years.
Michael J Edwards: Are you self-taught?
Steve Williamson: To a certain extent… I don’t know if it’s the same now, because teachers charge a hell of a lot more. Back in the day it cost five pounds a lesson, which was a lot for me as well, “Mum can I have five pounds for a saxophone lesson?” My teacher was a session player who lived up in Hayes. I believe his name was Tony Hall, he was my first teacher and he made me understand the mechanics of what I could do.
Michael J Edwards: You’re renowned playing tenor saxophone, but also play the soprano and the Alto, what made you gravitate towards the tenor saxophone?
Steve Williamson: Yeah, an interesting one, because alto is my first voice. I started on alto when I was playing with a band in the nineties, ‘That Fuss Was Us’… Then what actually happened… It happens to many saxophone players simply because John Coltrane is the greatest saxophone player that ever lived – unsurpassed. So when I listen to ‘Live at the Village Vanguard’ – and I’ve got all the vinyl still – and when I listened to that I switched almost instantly, I’ve got to tell you.
Michael J Edwards: Something happened to the neuron-connectors in your brain?
Steve Williamson: Exactly! Up to that point you listen to so many saxophone players, because to learn Jazz you have to learn that it’s a language. You have to know all the guys that came before you, the real masters; you have a good understanding of that. And when I actually came to Coltrane, – because I was getting to him quite rapidly, I was practising like thirteen hours a day – so when it came to Coltrane I was like, “Oh my God!” I didn’t even know the saxophone could do these things! I never knew you could play those combinations, I never knew could play chords, I never knew you could play multi-phonics in this way… And then he had something much greater than that, which was depth, spiritual depth. I became quite the Coltrane follower you can say for a period of time.
Michael J Edwards: Was this still during your teenage years?
Steve Williamson: This was possibly around when I was twenty; because when I started playing I didn’t go straight into Jazz. I started out playing Reggae.
Michael J Edwards: Which leads me neatly onto my next question – Reggae played a major part during your early career. How old were you when you started playing in pioneering Reggae band ‘Misty In Roots’?
Steve Williamson: I went online the other day and friends showed this to me – There’s actually a picture of me as a baby in Gorky Park, Russia playing with ‘Misty In Roots’. I was possibly about eighteen. It was nothing different to me that the time because I didn’t have the other alternative (Jazz) up to that point, it’s what I knew. I started playing with a Lovers Rock band in Tottenham – You know I’m from West London – because of the ‘Misty In Roots’ thing I started getting the connections in Tottenham. I ended up playing in a band called ‘The Instigators’ at the time – Mafia and Fluxy. Through Mafia and Fluxy the next thing I knew I was working with ‘Fat Man’. I even did a single with them, a dub-plate for them, playing Hawaii Five-O.
Michael J Edwards: So did your name go down as one of the contributors on it?
Steve Williamson: It was my thing. (Steve hums a reggae-fied version of Hawaii five-O) And Mafia and Fluxy was so super-tight, but every time there was a space in rehearsal they would play this thing. So I then would pick up my alto and play “Da da da da da dah dah!” (Hawaii Five-O theme tune) The next thing I knew the dub-plate was cut for ‘Fat Man’. In those early days I did a dub session with Dennis Brown, I did a dub session with Sugar Minott, Winston Reedy, Cornell Campbell – I was working with these guys. The first tour I did in the very early eighties, possibly eighty-two was just around the corner from here (Euston). The Podium it used to be called. The very first gig I ever did in my life was with ‘The Mighty Diamonds’, and at that time they had just had a global success with ‘Pass The Kutchie.’
The next thing you know, my band ‘The Black Diamonds’ and ‘The Instigators’ were supporting The Mighty Diamonds. To me they were like these great legends, and by the end of the day they would call after me. They called me ‘Hornsman’. The next thing you know, I’m playing with them and touring with ‘The Mighty Diamonds’. So then that started me off working with all these legends in the game.
Michael J Edwards: Because you gained a reputation from working with them?
Steve Williamson: Yeah, that’s right. I toured with Winston Reedy for some years and all sorts of people.
Michael J Edwards: It must have been great for you as a young person to travel the world with those groups?
Steve Williamson: It was amazing! It was amazing! ‘Misty In Roots’ used to play places like Russia and East Germany, while the wall was still up. All these places like Warsaw in Poland. It was fascinating, amazing and a real education.
Michael J Edwards: In the mid-’90s you studied at the Guildhall School of Music, what grounding did that give you?
Steve Williamson: I am an ex-alumna, and very proud of it, and always will be. What happened was when I went to the Guildhall, for the first time in my life I was around all sorts of musicians. And what was interesting to about the Guildhall, is that there were very few black people at the Guildhall, very few. I was maybe one of about four or five in the entire school; so I was almost like a novelty. It was a lot of fun! I was a young guy and I was meeting all these kind of people who have never ever had a conversation with someone like me.
That being said, when I was at Guildhall…the great Lionel Grigson was my teacher, he’s passed on now. Lionel Grigson is the person who, more than anyone else was instrumental in my being in the Guildhall; because I was getting piano lessons from him, I used to go to his house. He was a professor of music and he said, “You’ve got something, you should get into the Guildhall and you may have to stand in front of the panel and audition.”
Michael J Edwards: It’s like ‘Fame?’
Steve Williamson: Yeah! I played ‘Confirmation’ by Charlie Parker, which I had learned the hell out of. In those days it was all about Charlie Parker on alto, more than anyone else. I used to get up at five o’clock in the morning, get down to the Guildhall, and get in with the cleaners and start practising. Everyone started coming in around nine o’clock to nine-thirty, I stopped practising and started my lessons. I finished around six-ish, found a room, practice, around nine-thirty (pm) get kicked out by the cleaners, go home and practice until one or two (am) in the front room of our house. Next morning I was up at five o’clock to do the same thing again. I did that every single day, day in day out. That’s what I was known for; in those days I was known for how much I practised. It was a great experience for me – wonderful!
Michael J Edwards: The late eighties/early nineties was an extremely busy time for you, How was your experience playing alongside Courtney Pine and co. at Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday party in 1988?
Steve Williamson: The Mandela thing was too overwhelming for words. Standing on stage in front of so many people, as well as knowing that millions and millions of people were watching it at the same time across the globe was amazing! Wembley Stadium was completely sold out and full of people, and there I was blowing my arse off.
Michael J Edwards: Was it the biggest stage you played on before, during or since?
Steve Williamson: Yeah, it was probably the biggest, but as I said when I was in Russia I played in Moscow Stadium with ‘Misty In Roots’. They were the first reggae band ever to play in Moscow Stadium. That was huge! It was an international festival at that time. But just for me, myself to stand up there and play, I was shaking, but I played everything… I never compromised in how I played – ever! That was the fascination on one level, but on the other level it was like, “Why don’t you compromise? Why don’t you play a bit more melodic, a bit sweeter?” That was the reaction that came from people after a period of time. But I just went out there and played my arse off and didn’t give a shit. I hadn’t honed my voice at that point, but I certainly had the bloody energy, I used to play endlessly.
Michael J Edwards: So the Steve Williamson essence was there, but it had yet to be extracted?
Steve Williamson: Yeah, I was still young you see. And also to answer your question about Courtney Pine, and playing with those cats, The Jazz Warriors – it was amazing! It was the same energy, that’s why it happened. These things don’t just happen, these things happen in this way for a reason. There hasn’t been a black presence of Jazz musicians in this country not possibly since Joe Harriet, shaking Joe Harriet, that sort of period in the sixties. All of a sudden a small collective of us got together while I was studying at the Guildhall – Philip Bent, Wayne Bachelor, they used to live around the way, Gary Crosby used to live around the way… The next thing you know I’m walking down King Street in Hammersmith having been to see Miles Davis and I bump into this cat, he sees my saxophone and goes, “Hey man I play the flute!”
So this energy started bubbling up and unbeknownst to us on all levels, people were taking notice of their energy, it was simmering. But we were still young and we just thought it was fun and all the rest of it, and we could have got together, but there was a bigger plan for certain individuals and a bigger plan for the entire thing. I was really playing hard, really playing hard. But it was a real buzz being around all these guys. And that is what turned into what you see now with Soweto Kinch and co. That was the seed. In 2016 or 2017 when there is a Jazz scene in this country that is developed and fully flourishing and people are well placed in certain positions, as they should be, understand that that was the kernel that was the seed that started it all – that’s it! Up to that point there wasn’t an ‘IT’. Then we came and it ‘Was!’ It Was! And now look where it is, and look at the playing ability of these cats, people like Shabaka (Hutchings) are fantastic. In ten years time a cat is going to come after Shabaka who will impress me even more I’m sure. I’m sure Shabaka word hope so.
We came from Reggae really, but we had a desire to play more, understand more, learn more and take it somewhere further, so it kind of developed that scene.
Michael J Edwards: During this period your second home was Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club as well as being a constant in Louis Moholo’s ‘Viva La Black Band’. Good times?
Steve Williamson: Yes. We toured a lot, Louis and his tenor player from Holland called Sean Bergen. He was a big, massive Dutch guy. We were in East Germany and playing this really deep music, which had a message.
Michael J Edwards: You played with American saxophonist Steve Coleman around this time. He introduced what was known as M-BASE or Macro Basic Array of Structured Extemporisations. Was it akin to the meeting of two ‘like minds’, as you both gravitated towards improvisation and structure, moving away from Western timings and time structures?
Steve Williamson: I’ll tell you what happened. This happened whilst I was still at Guildhall. In those days I was writing a lot, I started writing really in earnest I would say when I was at Guildhall. I wrote a couple of pieces, which actually appeared on the ‘A Waltz For Grace’ album… I did the usual thing, after college was finished I would go to the S.U (Student Union) bar; or we used to go down to a club in Covent Garden which used to be very vibrant and really cool in that period. There was a place called the ‘Brahms and Liszt’ in the Piazza. So I was there with a few people and there was a saxophone player and she was also a teacher of mine called Anita Carmichael. She said to me, “Dave Holland is playing, are you coming down?” I said, “Yeah! Let’s do this!” So I went down to Ronnie Scott’s – and remember at this time I had been studying Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Cannonball, I had gone through everyone from Art Blakey to David Kos… Joe Henderson. I mean Joe Henderson was a big influence on me before I made ‘A Waltz For Grace’ album – all of a sudden I heard this guy playing like that! And this guy was Steve Coleman playing saxophone in Dave Holland’s band.
Michael J Edwards: It was completely outside of the parameters of what you knew up until then?
Steve Williamson: To be honest yes, but at the same time it was deeply resonant, because I can’t honestly say that Eric Dolphy to this day had the same resonance as Steve Coleman did for me. Because for me what I promote is a harmonic understanding, not just playing Jazz because you like to put a suit on and you like to be cool, but to have an understanding. At the Guildhall I was studying what you have to learn in the curriculum – in any establishment you have to learn what was on the curriculum – if you’re going to learn to play Jazz, you have to learn the Jazz step, learn Jazz harmony and navigate your way around Jazz pieces, ‘Standards’ as they’re known. I tried to navigate my way around these pieces and as much as they were connected to the harmony, they were far away from it. We call that playing outside the changes.
That’s what fascinated me at the time, so all the players I used to listen didn’t play conventional, but they had something they were doing that was connected to that chord but was a bit further away from it, and I thought “How does that work, but it works!” I studied Lydian Grammatic Concept and George Russell. I have always been collecting lots of books, so I would learn all these various different methods of trying to play outside… Then I heard this guy Steve Coleman. I do understand now why it was so deeply resonant…When he’d finished playing I said to him, “What are you doing?” He really liked the fact that I asked him that question, and he just gave me all the time in the world. He said, “I’m staying at this hotel and I can give you a kind of understanding of the whole methodology behind what I’m playing.” Then I realised it is a complete system. In fact, Macro Basic Array of Structured Extemporisations sounds like a computer language right? And what I realise now it is probably more computer-based, and where I am now is not that. But that was another kind of stop-off point on my journey, so I learnt lots of that stuff. I didn’t learn all of it at one time; I learned certain areas of it and learned that really well.
Michael J Edwards: Basically, you’ve taken elements from everything you’ve absorbed musically thus far and regurgitated or reinterpreted it in your own style as Steve Williamson?
Steve Williamson: Yes, absolutely! In the early days I still had the Jazz aesthetic if you will. By that I mean Jazz players do copy other Jazz musicians’ playing. Now if I use the term ‘copying’ Jazz players will get right on my case about it. They take a sax player or a piano player and they copy the hell out of him until they play like him, and when they play like this person they’re regarded as a good player. I’ve never ever subscribed to that aesthetic at any point, when I was at Guildhall or at any point! But I did, as a young player definitely learn so much Coltrane that I stopped listening to Coltrane for fifteen years.
Michael J Edwards: You overdosed on Coltrane?
Steve Williamson: Yeah! So I started sounding like him. Here’s how you can tell when somebody sounds like someone, when they’ve ripped them to pieces – they sound like them rhythmically, sometimes the notes aren’t right (Steve plays an imaginary saxophone riff) – Well that’s Coltrane right there! So they might not even play all the right notes, but rhythmically that’s what they’re going to absorb. So when I heard Steve Coleman I thought that within this understanding of how to improve, it endorses my theory that every single musician, every single improviser could be individual! Yes you can learn from other players and regurgitate that stuff…
…When I was in Art Blakey’s band, he made me an honorary (Jazz) Messenger, and I was playing with Art Blakey for a period up until when he died. And I was standing on stage with his band and this one saxophone player basically copied Joe Henderson to such a point, in every single aspect, from the mouthpiece to the reed Joe Henderson used – everything! He even tried to stand in a certain way, and he played all the phrases; he played them so well that anybody regarded this guy has a good player. You’re supposed to have your own individuality. Without trying to labour on the point, that’s what I’ve always tried to push… Then again as I got older I realised that speaking too much about individualism would get me into trouble.
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
Spending a lifetime copying somebody, that’s not how you learn, you don’t learn simply by copying, because there is a language, a harmonic language. And then through that ‘harmonic language’, the great players like Joe Henderson, Coltrane and those sorts of players through this amazing ‘harmonic language’ developed a style of their own… For some reason in this life I was fortunate to play with all of the greats before they died, they called me, because they heard how I played, so they called me, all of them. I played with people from George Clinton to Dennis Brown to Ali Farka Toure to Guru to Donald Byrd – They just called me. I understand what that means now. I understand why it happened. You know what they said to me, “Find your own voice.” So I said, “Okay!”
Michael J Edwards: 1990 saw the release of your first album ‘A Waltz For Grace,’ why the title, what was the concept behind the album and what was it like working with vocalist Abbey Lincoln?
Steve Williamson: Fantastic questions! Excellent questions! I had a loss in my early years that really turned me into the person that I am now – my sister died, whom I was very close with. So the album was dedicated to my sister.
Michael J Edwards: Was her name Grace?
Steve Williamson: Yes. And next year (2015) will be the 25th anniversary of the album. At the time of that album I was studying Joe Henderson, who more than anyone else is probably my favourite saxophone player, so some of the compositions on there have similar harmony, even if I didn’t understand the meaning of what he was doing fully… So I called Steve (Coleman) in America, we had stayed in touch, and like I said that he really admired the fact that I asked him the question and that he heard something in my playing. I said to him, “I’ve got a chance to make this album and I would like you to produce it?” So he said, “Yes.”
So he came to London and we met in this hotel, and he said to me, “If you had a wish list, anyone you want to work with, anyone, any singer, any singer you would like to work with on your wish list, just say any name, who would it be? So I said, “Abbey Lincoln.” The greatest! A great! The greatest! You know we speak about Billy (Holiday) and we speak about Sarah Vaughan and all these great, great singers, but understand Abbey Lincoln – my God! Because it’s a certain way that she places her phrases. So he said to me, “Oh! I know Abbey.” Serendipity – that’s how it works.
Michael J Edwards: Speak what you want into existence?
Steve Williamson:said, “She doesn’t really do things like this.” I told her what it was about, she said yes instantly! She had a similar scenario, so she said yes instantly. I went over there to her house in Brownstone in Brooklyn, and I met this amazing Goddess, and she sung it – I don’t want to get emotional talking about it, but she sung it and rest is history.
Michael J Edwards: So that will always have a special place in your heart, not just the fact that it’s your first album, but the history behind it?
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
Steve Williamson: Yeah, it was a very special one.
Michael J Edwards: Are there any tracks on the ‘A Waltz For Grace’ album that especially stand out for you?
Steve Williamson: To be fair, ‘A Waltz For Grace’ is the most complete album that I’ve made. It was produced well; it was recorded in America with this amazing legendary producer in ‘Systems Two Studios’ in Brooklyn. Ravi Coltrane recorded his first album there. In fact, when Ravi’s album came out, almost ten years later or something, I said, “Huh! Sounds like my kind of production?” And it turned out it was recorded in the same studio. There’s a piece called ‘Mandy’s Mood,’ but ‘Hummingbird’ is the track on the album that is most indicative of the journey that I’ve had literally and possibly from around five years old. I would say before five years old.
At that point I started understanding about playing in not just keys or simple chords; like the note ‘C’ has a sphere of harmony around it, or connected to it. They call them ‘Tonal Centres.’ I was away somewhere, I think I was in Jamaica and I saw a Hummingbird for the first time. To this day I’m still fascinated by this Hummingbird, and I kept looking at it and thinking, “Is there a pattern to its humming as it hovers there and pollinates this flower.” And it’s not dissimilar to a moth flying around a light-bulb. So there are these phrases that fly around this one ‘Tonal Centre’ and that’s how ‘Hummingbird’ came about when I wrote the piece. But now I’m doing it literally now, but then I just wrote it. But the language that is connected to this tonal centre is evident in every instrument that is playing, the guitarist is playing it – he’s playing a different line; the pianist playing it – he’s playing a different line that one; the bass player the same. They’re all playing this different stuff, but for some reason it works. That’s the earliest example of what I do now, the track ‘Hummingbird’ on the record.
Michael J Edwards: You obviously had a lot to say, because two years later in 1992 came your sophomore release ‘Rhyme Time – That Fuss Was Us!’. The same question as above, why the title and what was your mindset when writing it?
Steve Williamson: When I was younger I remember when ‘Rappers Delight’ came out. I remember it very well; I remember the very day when my brother came back from New York with this record. It was pretty much like changing to be honest… Let me just quickly say, ‘Soon Come’ on the ‘A Waltz For Grace’ album is me saying, “I’ve learnt Reggae and this is where it’s at, this is where I think it should be at.” When you’re young you think you can change the world. But ‘Rhyme Time’ was meant to be my expression of a burgeoning rap world/universe being reborn.
‘Rhyme Time’ is basically saying we are now in a time of Rap. At that time that I said it, it hadn’t become the culture that it is now. But I had a feeling that it was going to become a culture that would be completely endorsed by people around the world, so you would get kids literally posturing like they’re a gangster, and they’re not. ‘Rhyme Time’ is just a word a that I used at the time to describe a time that we’re in now that was completely changed when that music (Rap) came along; whether it was’ Rappo-Clappo’ (Joe Bataan) or The Sugar Hill Gang or whoever. That paradigm shift happened at that point, and all of a sudden we’re in a whole new era where people think differently, dress differently, act differently – guess what? They’re actually all quite the same.
So I took that and I said, okay, I’m going to apply it to what I do as a writer or a musician; so I’m not just going to simply mix in hip-hop, instead I’m going to take that hip-hop and I’m gonna deal with it almost in a metric way, with harmony flowing out of it; that’s actually what it was about. I used to listen to Ice Cube in those days, N.W.A. I was listening to, Public Enemy I was listening to. I was listening to Rap a lot in those days, as well as the Jazz, but I never wanted to just make a Rap album. I wanted to take it and really give it the harmonic treatment.
Michael J Edwards: It’s similar to an artist’s painting when Cubism came to the fore; you’re doing the same with Jazz.
Steve Williamson: You nailed it.
Michael J Edwards: Staying with ‘Rhyme Time,’ you worked with another great female voice of our time, Cassandra Wilson. Is she as impressive in the studio and live as she sounds on vinyl and CD?
Steve Williamson: She’s unbelievable! It was quite a young scene; if you take the players that were involved in that M-Base scene now, people like Dave Gilmour as an example; you’re talking about virtuosos. It’s ridiculous how his music sounds and how he plays now! Back in those days. I used to go to his house in America and we would be working out stuff together. So Cassandra was a youngster at the time, she’s still young. But her energy is unreal! And that voice! The truth be told, she only needs to sing one word or one note, and that would be enough.
So working with Cassandra was great… To me it’s all about energy; I said these things pretty much consistently for decades and decades and decades. Though I understood it, I didn’t know how to articulate. If I put it this way, it’s no coincidence that I worked with Cassandra; it’s no coincidence that we met each other and that we worked together on something – It’s no coincidence in this world of seven billion people. There are certain people who, it doesn’t matter where they live on this planet, if they’ve got something I can hear then I’m going to try to get that voice incorporated into my work.
Michael J Edwards: Put one on the South Pole and one on the North Pole and they’ll still gravitate to each other.
Steve Williamson: I’d certainly try to bring them together if I had the capability. In those days when recording the record labels had bigger budgets, so I can actually say, “That person lives all the way over there, let’s bring them over here.” But it was great working with Cassandra, it was a great experience.
Michael J Edwards: Is she knowledgeable and aware in the sense that she understands where the musicians are coming from, i.e. their point of view?
Steve Williamson: Holistic, without a doubt. Remember, every music or Jazz scene has its many different factions, and that scene that she came out of has led her to go on and win Grammys and become world-renowned. In the scene she came out of they were dealing with a kind of hip-hop aesthetic with this kind of improvised music that’s called Jazz. But they didn’t want to call it Jazz, so they had another name for it.
To Be Continued…
Michael J Edwards
In Part 2 Steve Williamson talks in further depth about his ‘Journey To Truth’ album; That Fuss Was Us and more of his personal musical philosophy.
As a Band Leader –
• A Waltz For Grace (1990)
• Rhyme Time (That Fuss Was Us) (1992)
• Journey To Truth (1994)