“Around the time of ‘A Waltz For Grace’ I was doing around three hundred and seventy-five gigs a year! I’ve still got lists of stuff I was doing, and it was literally like, “Do this! Be here! Be that!’ It had to be just so.” – Steve Williamson
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
In Part One, Steve Williamson gave a full and frank insight into growing up in the Williamson household, his early musical influences and musical schooling and his debut album ‘A Waltz For Grace’. In Part Two Steve delves deeper into his two subsequent albums ‘Journey To Truth’ and ‘Rhyme Time (That Fuss Was)’ as well as the background behind the formation of his groundbreaking band ‘That Fuss Was Us’ and why he decided to take a sabbatical prior to his resurgence in 2010/11.
Michael J Edwards: So now we move on to the ‘Journey to Truth’; how had your writing progressed two years on from your debut album?
Steve Williamson: It really did progress a lot, and I’ll tell you something the same thing happened when I heard Jhelisa (Anderson) for the first time. The first time I heard her; I was like, “Oh wow!” She sings the title track on the album. I thought to myself, “I don’t want anyone else singing on this album.” It turned out that I got Jhelisa to sing on it, and there’s another track called, ‘How I’m Living’ and that’s Pamela (Anderson) her sister singing on it. ‘Journey to Truth’ represents a journey – it’s not some kind of religious journey, but it’s the journey. You see the truth is really the essence, so it’s a journey back to a kind of purity if you will. Although I said, it’s not religious, it is definitely a spiritual journey; it’s a journey back to self. And I can maybe articulate it better now than I could it. It’s got two pieces of music on there, one’s called, ‘Affirmation’. The very first piece of music on there is basically Thomas Dialli playing all these percussion and bells, and I’m just extemporising – so I’m literally just going off, my eyes shut and I’m playing. Then it goes into ‘Journey to Truth’ – “The world inside the grain of sand looking out through a fish-eye.” Then the piano comes in with the voice-over, “Journey to Truth”, and it starts. To this day everyone keeps saying that it should have been released as a single.
Michael J Edwards: On what label were these albums released?
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
Steve Williamson: When I made ‘A Waltz For Grace’ there was a big ceremony where they all came over from America. The first issue was Charlie Parker, and they re-opened the Verve label. The second album was also on Verve, and the third album was on Nippon Phonogram, I made it for a Japanese label. But it’s a journey back to self, the essence. The frustration I’ve had is that there are certain things that you are supposed to do, or supposed to be – it was like standing on the Nelson Mandela stage, I never felt like a superstar – but maybe almost to a fault, it’s always been about the music and trying to get to a certain understanding for me.
Michael J Edwards: You’re always trying to reach something?
Steve Williamson: I am. So what actually happened in 2010 to me is that I went on the radio and spoke to Jez Nelson about it. What actually happened there was that realisation where everything that happened musically just came together. ‘Journey to Truth’ was a precursor to that; ‘Journey to Truth’ wasn’t saying that it was going to happen; ‘Journey to Truth’ was me making an everlasting statement…It’s a journey back to me, because I remember me, I do! I remember me before all of this stuff happened. Remember I was Armani for two and a half years; Mr Armani, dressed me for two and a half years. I did the launch party; they cleared out the whole Armani store in Knightsbridge and that’s where I did the launch party.
I speak to people like Soweto Kinch and these cats, and every now and again I give them a little bit of information about stuff. What they understand is not what I experienced; I had real pop star treatment…Here’s the thing, I was a young guy, and then I had a certain kind of look. I noticed that people wearing suits in those early days. I was playing with Art Blakey and they were wearing suits and all this stuff. In the 90s I was wearing a big fat pair of boots, some big balloon Armani trousers, a shirt and a jacket. That’s how I was busting it, because I was a young guy you know. And that attracted the attention of various different people. So yeah, he dressed before two and a half years; and that was the official statement, ‘Mr Armani dresses Steve Williamson’. I was in the front cover of thirty-five magazines in one year! Here’s the reason why I’m saying these things, because when people actually use the words disappear, many people get this intense pressure to actually be something else – and I was a young guy. ‘Be that which makes us money, don’t be anything else.’
Michael J Edwards: So you’re being true to yourself, it’s a journey to yourself?
Steve Williamson: Yes, because I remember that innocence and I remember that essence. So I thought to myself, “The only way I would ever be able to create what I know is inside, is for me to get back to a point of purity.” I swear to God, I actually went to live by the sea. I did a performance at Bexhill on the South Coast and there’s a listed pavilion right there next to the sea called the Delaware pavilion. I was right on top of this pavilion with a floodlight on me and I just blew my saxophone… I stayed with this lovely old couple who owned a cottage with a thatched roof – a beautiful old cottage. The sea was right there and I loved it. So I said this couple when I finished the gig, “I could live here forever!” And they said to me, “You can have it as a little bolthole.” And I said, “Really!” So I packed my bags, and the next day I moved there and didn’t come back to London for two and a half years; In fact I was there for three years. People didn’t understand it at the time. Remember, this was all after that ‘Journey to Truth’ period, but I knew that somehow I needed to get back to that point of peace; I had to get that point! Because what I’m dealing with is nature.
In fact, this is the first time I’ve explained this, the first time! What I deal with is nature; a harmonic representation of nature is what I do, and for me to be on that journey then it has to be a complete harmonic representation of nature. That means how the trees are moving right now; the harmony has to move like that too. And how the sea goes, ‘Whoosh!’ like that, you’ve got to literally almost visually have that in the music as well, you’ve got to have sweeps like this, it’s got to be there! My point is, it’s a journey back to the essence within, it’s a journey back to the truth; and let’s be honest before you’re born, that’s the only thing that could possibly really be called truth. So a rebirth had to happen.
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
And the weirdest thing is I didn’t even realise it until I was speaking to Jez Nelson that day in 2011. I had just come back (to London) and I got a call saying that the BBC would like to do a retrospective of my work. And I was like, “Really, a retrospective of my work! Okay, that would be cool!” When I spoke with Jez he asked me a question and I said, ‘Yeah, it feels like being born again!” Because what I realised was anything from the past, any of these endless heavy experiences that happened to me came to the fore. Around the time of ‘A Waltz For Grace’ I was doing around three hundred and seventy-five gigs a year! I’ve still got lists of stuff I was doing, and it was literally like, “Do this! Be here! Be that!’ It had to be just so.
Michael J Edwards: What is the historic connection between substance abuse and jazz musicians?
Steve Williamson: I was raised by Rastaman, people like Misty,n,Roots; proper Rastaman, not people who act like it or have the hairstyle. We used to go to Russia and places like that and people didn’t cook for them, they cooked their own food…What you need to understand in terms of all that stuff, especially coming into the Jazz world, these substances had a different relevance to all these people like Charlie Parker and co. I don’t believe people like Billie holiday and artists of that ilk really had a good time in life, for the most part. There’s many reasons, and you have to consider the environment at the time i.e. Black America in the forties, fifties and sixties.
At the same time there’s also another aspect to the use of substances in that it makes people see more and hear more, whatever. So you can understand why musicians especially jazz musicians indulged. But for myself personally I think this: I think it’s very important for me personally to have loads of experiences in life. I’ve always been a person who’s done things at the drop of a hat; I just go somewhere… I’d go this or that country or whatever! I don’t do that anymore at all, but I did. I would take off and go to this country or that country or whatever. Experiences are important, but keeping a clear head is how I operate; that’s how I operate personally. Anything else just doesn’t work for me.
Michael J Edwards: Please give us the lowdown on the funk band you formed called ‘That Fuss Was Us’?
Steve Williamson: The second album is called ‘Rhyme Time and in brackets (That Fuss Was Us!)’ exclamation mark. So I’m making a statement; and this statement is: “That all that fucking fuss; Soweto Kinch, Courtney Pine, Jason Yarde, Tony Kofi, Shabaka Hutchings, Zoe Rahman, Nicky Yeoh – all beautiful and majestic players – you name it. The various different things which happen within these various institutions, with people getting placed in certain places and funding streams – That fuss was us! It started as a small acorn from which a huge fucking oak tree is growing and will keep growing, because oak trees don’t stop. They’re amazing, I love oak trees! And as it grows the bark will get stronger and stronger and stronger, and as it does the roots will dig deeper and deeper and deeper; and I will make sure of that.
Here’s the reason for That Fuss Was Us – I needed an outlet for my complete devotion to that crazy badass George Clinton, and that’s what it was about – that’s it! So ‘That Fuss Was Us’ was basically P-Funk, before P-Funk turned to G-funk, which is basically just non-music. So what I did is I took the P-Funk and I just gave it the same treatment again with what I knew at that point i.e improvising on it and blowing some shit on the saxophone under these structures. The original band for me was Pete and Steve Lewinson – that was it! Now they’re doing major sessions and work elsewhere. So for me Pete and Steve Lewinson was ‘That Fuss Was Us’, Thomas Dialli (percussion) for me was, “That Fuss Was Us” – The son of the legendary Johnny Dialli. Tony Remy on guitar, the stuff he was playing back in those days was ridiculous! I was kicking their arses… I’m telling you right now I am known for this; not any more in the same way, but in no uncertain terms. I was younger, and I fully understood at that time that I was trying to make people react… I didn’t talk to you enough about ‘Rhyme Time…’ believe me, because there is no one, and I don’t mind how this sounds, there is no one at all, coming from, where I came from, looking how I look, EVER, I would say in the history of this country in my opinion – including Joe Harriott – who has taken things harmonically in that way at all!! And I did ‘Rhyme Time…’ in 1992, and I wrote that album in 1991!
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
So, with regard to ‘That Fuss Was Us’ I pushed them until they literally gave me the best and then beyond of what they could do; and I’m telling you now I did it – I did it on stage! If they weren’t playing good enough, I would tell them while on stage in those days. I was serious! You’ve got to understand this, just let me paint a picture of the environment as well at the time of ‘That Fuss Was Us’. I was creative, I was young, and when you’re young you are supposed to be this; all of these things. You’re supposed to be this! You’re supposed to think you can change the world, and I’m disappointed when I don’t see it as much nowadays. You’ve got understand the climate at the time, I’m trying to find musicians, and these musicians are basically just trying to get paid. This also happened when I was trying to promote albums like ‘A Waltz For Grace’ and ‘Journey to Truth’. For instance, I may have a drummer and someone might call them and then they can’t do any of my gigs. So I’m trying to find musicians all the time, and I can’t keep any consistency. That was another thing that really bothered me during that period.
Noel McKoy was also part of ‘That Fuss Was Us’, because I had worked on his track ‘Family’. I played the B-side saxophone version and I worked on ‘Family’ at that time the. I thought that these guys are unreal, these guys are amazing! And he’s got such depth in his voice; he’s got an amazing voice. So I thought, “You know what, I want him to do this!” And that’s what it is for me, that’s what it is with Cassandra (Wilson), that’s what it is with Abbey Lincoln; I want them to be this. I want to hear them do something else. Because I think that’s what really works well. I often hear voices in that vein. There’s a singer called Lana Del Ray; I hear the Lana Del Rey‘s voice on music that I’m writing right now. She has a very haunting voice; I believe she’s from California. She’s a huge ‘Pop’ star; you’d be surprised but that’s the kind of voice I’m hearing at the moment. So I put these guys together (That Fuss Was Us) and we just thrashed it out and wrote these things. And what we actually did is we went to Tokyo. This was with Paul Bradshaw in the early days.
Michael J Edwards: So what was Paul Bradshaw’s thoughts and input at the time?
Steve Williamson: You can maybe get the following quote from Paul, but, “It changed the game!” You got to understand, we were young guys, we’ve come out of mainly playing Reggae, and here’s the thing – there are two schools of thought in this game, the game is split in so many different ways within the Jazz world… I hate all this shit by the way. You have this scene within that scene and all this angular stuff, so many different splits – but the point I’m making is we were never really raised with a piano over here and a music stand, and learning scales and learning to read. So reading wasn’t the first thing, it was more intuitive, more feeling, and improvising much more.
Michael J Edwards: It’s akin to how Michael Jackson described his dancing, you didn’t attend dance, but said his dancing was dictated by the feeling within him which he expressed outwardly.
Steve Williamson: I was going to mention Michael Jackson’s name before in fact, but you nailed it – and that’s what it is, we really came from that kind of school. So the other things we had to learn along the way, like reading was a very important aspect. I understood the whole thing! I understood the whole sound! I was writing intricate arrangements for ‘That Fuss Was Us’; I was writing intricate horn arrangements for saxophone and trombone. And I was writing intricate arrangements, sometimes the day before a rehearsal, and sometimes on the day of the rehearsal! I would just walk into rehearsals and just say, “Let’s play this!” But more importantly, what I was going to say about Tokyo in 1993, which is of really great importance is that for this venture to be a viable venture then those black guys have to be taken seriously. You can’t just be playing some ‘Reggae Jazz’, or whatever and you’re a jazz musician; because you’re not going to reinvent the game, you’re not now going to start playing some simple crap and we’re going to give you some favours. Are you world-class or not? Are you playing some stuff that is serious or not?
I went out to ‘Gold’ in Tokyo and all my heroes were there; all the saxophone players in Tokyo came out and they were on the front of the stage. I played for two and a half hours straight! I didn’t take the saxophone out of my mouth! And I played so much shit it’s unbelievable, and I played it with accuracy – the Alto Sax, I played it with accuracy! And they were like, “Oooh! God! Yeah, a saxophone player!” And we played this club called ‘Gold’ for two or three nights, and it sold-out. On the last night the guy from Nikon Phonogram became my dear friend and mentor to a degree. He had a recording contract; it was like something out of the movie! He offered me a recording contract literally that day and I said okay.
Here’s the thing though, as amazing as it was the things that we did with ‘That Fuss Was Us’, and that era, for me it wasn’t meant to be a lasting thing, and it wasn’t meant to turn into an R&B band. All of a sudden I was under quite a lot of pressure because it had become bigger and bigger, and then people got really interested in our sound. Then they would say can play that again but make it a bit more commercial. In retrospect, I would have gone ahead and taken the money, but I didn’t though. It wasn’t meant to turn into an R&B band; there’s a difference between the R&B scene over here and the jazz players, I would like to think.
Michael J Edwards: A demarcation line?
Steve Williamson: Yes, I believe so! I believe demarcation lines need to be in place in this regard only because I think it’s a healthy. I’m not an R&B saxophone player; I’m not trying to make R&B songs simply to make people dance. But at the same time ‘That Fuss Was Us’ was about people really getting down, and we loved it. But all of a sudden it started turning into something else, so I thought it’s time to get into some ‘Journey to Truth’ man!”
Michael J Edwards: Would you ever put that band back together?
Steve Williamson: I would love to! I think about it often you know; I do. I think about it often, because I listen back to some of the tapes of some of the gigs we did! They were really, really, really awesome, some of the things we were doing; because I wasn’t really holding back in terms of like what I could actually do, but with a P-funk backdrop… I wasn’t holding back at all!
Michael J Edwards: We need to start the campaign – Bring back ‘That Fuss Was Us’.
Steve Williamson: Yeah! Yeah man!
Michael J Edwards: Tell us about the period in 1992 when you recorded with The Roots on their first album for Gilles Peterson’s ‘Talkin’ Loud’ label, ‘From The Ground Up’ at Rak Studios, London.
Steve Williamson: It’s an interesting one, I remember that period really well. It was kind of really exciting, and it was summertime as well. Here’s the thing, look, Steve Coleman called me up – no disrespect to Gilles (Peterson) and the various different things that were happening, but I had a different connection with The Roots – Steve Coleman called me up and said, “Man, you need to hear this MF man!” I said, “Who’s this?” And he said, “Black Thought aka Tariq”.
He said, you need to hear this cat, because in those days he was a novelty, it was new that somebody was actually rapping over jazz kind of structures… And is not only doing that but his improvising with his rap, he’s free-styling so well that he shifting on-the-fly. That was pretty amazing at the time. In those days he came over to England, wowed everyone and people couldn’t believe just how well he free-styled; he could just go on forever. So that’s how I actually knew of Tariq, so when it came to recording ‘Journey to Truth’ because I had the budget I flew the whole crew over, and they stayed in my house. I was driving a jeep in those days, and I had all The Roots crew in the back of my jeep, and we would go down Kensington High Street to McDonald’s! (Laughs)
Michael J Edwards: So did the roots have any input on the ‘Journey to Truth’ album?
Steve Williamson: Regarding ‘Journey to Truth’ as I said I got the chance to work with Nikon Phonogram and make this album and “Who do you want to work with?” It was a normal question when you’re working with these major labels. This doesn’t happen anymore working with major labels, but in those days it was, “Who do you want to work with?” because they had such a big budget. And I said, “Okay, I would like to work with this crew The Roots. In fact I don’t just want the rapper Tariq; I want that guy Amir also!” So that’s how that happened; so they’re all over the album. And I’ve got lots of stuff obviously that’s recorded that I didn’t put in the release.
Michael J Edwards: The essence of your work revolves around continual study of your instrument and various genres of music, be it West African, Classical, Reggae, Avant-Garde, World Music etc. Does drawing on all these varied genres keep your creative thought process fresh?
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
Steve Williamson: Yeah, and it’s important for me that that creative thought process stays fresh; it’s important! Here’s the thing, it actually go to a point in 2010 where the music that I am now making now informs my playing. And because I understand this music; I don’t like to say that I’ve created something, but that I do like to say that I’ve actually contributed to a really rich tapestry of people making World Music – to have confidence in doing that. And now it is actually more about ‘The Music’, because to actually call it music and say It’s more about music is almost like a contradiction in terms, because this actually goes back to just the ‘tones’. What I now deal with actually goes back to just ‘tones’. Tones are what they using world music, and what they use in various indigenous types of music which really resonated with me.
I was speaking with this unbelievably beautiful musician Emi Watanabe, and I was speaking to her about these ‘tones’ and how we have something that we share; and what we share are these tones. If you go back far enough there’s a link that we both share and it’s actually these tones that we share. I also deduced that there are certain tones that I use, and certain tones that she uses. So I wrote music that is now more harmonious than anything I’ve ever written, and certainly more harmonious than anything I’ve ever recorded when I was a child; because I was only young when I recorded those albums. It’s so much more harmonious… The point being that what has existed before all labels are these tones, and that to me is what keeps my creative juices flowing. Now that I’m actually really dealing with almost like the essence, which is these tones, and giving them order. Waving my wand; being a creator, and giving them an entire structure. Not dissimilar to an electronics kit, where all of a sudden the light bulb comes on, making a structure that is perfect – the perfect structure. In fact, I call them schematics, because that’s what it is and all of a sudden you have the perfect structure and it sounds amazing.
Michael J Edwards: You took time out recently, in many people’s eyes you disappeared from the scene. I believe you took time out to study in more depth and rediscover your voice on the horn, as suggested to you by past greats such as Art Blakey. Discuss?
Steve Williamson: In 1997 I did a date at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, and I was playing with Gil Scott-Heron around that time. I also did something with Jazzamatazz. The next thing I know I get an e-mail saying, “We’re doing the whole East Coast tour in America, twenty odd dates or something, would you be able to do it?” I said, “Okay.” In fact that was the first time I had actually toured with Hip Hop guys man, a proper five-star tour! Anyway, I spent some months with Donald Byrd. Yes, it was Jazzamatazz, but more importantly we’ve got the great Donald Byrd! We did the whole East Coast tour on Public Enemy’s tour bus…It was a heavy tour, but what I found was the best place for me on that tour bus was with this guy, Donald Byrd – a fucking genius! He’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met in my entire life. He’s an aircraft pilot, he’s a professor, and he’s made so many albums. He said to me, “Steve, I’ve made more albums than Coltrane, than Miles Davis.” He’s an amazing person, amazing! I spent every minute with him for months, he taught me so much. In those days I had a mini disc player – I said, “Mr Byrd, do you mind if I record, because I can’t believe how much stuff your teaching me? I’m not going to remember all the stuff!” He said, “Yes, okay Steve.” So I did.
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
You got to understand, I was working with Ali Farka Touré and a lot of different people. But what I wasn’t doing was what I was doing prior to that, going out and playing and being part of the scene. So I kind of step back to do other things, and ultimately to kind of find something else I guess. So I kind of step back; but I didn’t stop completely. There were some years when I didn’t actually play the saxophone, but I didn’t stop writing. Even when I stopped playing the saxophone I’ve never stopped writing music, never! I mean literally never; I’ve never ever stopped writing music. I can write a song for you right now – Steve Williamson proceeds to hum a tune, and imitates a drum solo – I can now orchestrate what I’ve just done – Steve Williamson then proceeds to sing the orchestration and the various chord sequences – I could do that, I can do that right now, but that’s not writing for me… Writing for me is digging so deep that every single fabric of who you are is now represented in your music. There’s no difference in the music and you – none! In fact, when I listen to players that I really, really appreciate, how they play, how they sing, what they do and who they are is exactly the same; it’s one! That’s what it is, that’s what it is man. All the greats are like that!
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde
What you do, what you are, and what you produce is exactly the same. When I came back in 2011, a young musician is going to be very good, his name is Mark and he plays trumpet, one of the young Guildhall student’s. He asked me about ‘Hummingbird’ and how did I put that together. I like the fact that he asked the question about ‘Hummingbird’. He asked me, “How did you layer it? What were you doing?” And I spoke to him for almost two hours! And you know what I spoke to him about; I didn’t mention one single musical note, I didn’t mention one single thing about musical theory; none of it! I spoke about nature, I spoke about things, I spoke about proportion and I spoke about DNA, spoke about personality – all these varied and different things. And I mentioned this to him as well, “That instrument, it’s only that thing that is enabling you to do that, and express that and give it to people. That (instrument) is actually a barrier; it’s not about the trumpet, it’s not about the saxophone; in fact the saxophone doesn’t exist!” I play my best when I literally can actually tune in and reach a point of understanding that the saxophone doesn’t exist. How dare I! In fact the saxophone is the one thing on this planet that I want with me into the next life – and I insist on this! But I’m telling you now it doesn’t exist, because it’s just the thing that I use to do ‘that!’
Michael J Edwards: It’s an extension of you?
Steve Williamson: That’s exactly what is, it’s an extension. So musically, the music has to be an extension of yourself, and that to me is what writing is. I think music has to have some kind of a resonance in the person that’s listening. If I didn’t have too I wouldn’t charge people for it, I would just want people to have it.
Michael J Edwards: You’re echoing what Leon Ware said to me, he said music should be free, but feel free to donate.
Steve Williamson: When I had that experience in 2010 when I started hearing things, I actually thought that what happened to me in that period was nothing that I thought would happen. I thought I’d maybe get older. Me and Courtney (Pine) used to say this funnily enough about twenty years ago – “I wonder how we’re going to sound when we’re forty!” What actually did happen was I started hearing more; that’s what happened. All of a sudden I could hear almost like colours…I know it sounds corny, but you can hear the music. I heard more in it maybe, that’s actually what happened. That to me is what it’s all about.
Michael J Edwards
In Part 3, Steve talks about the influence of John Coltrane, his musical peers, Bruce Lee and what the word ‘Jazz’ actually means to him.
As a Band Leader –
• A Waltz For Grace (1990)
• Rhyme Time (That Fuss Was Us) (1992)
• Journey To Truth (1994)