Steve Williamson Pt.3

“Do you understand he is the father of a language. He influenced many great saxophone players…So when you hear Michael Brecker playing alternate phrases, understand there are certain phrases or catchphrases that everybody recognises as that individual. John Coltrane is the father of that language.” – Steve Williamson

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Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

In Part Two Steve Williamson discussed his introduction to Steve Coleman, his band ‘That Fuss Was Us’, working with The Roots, the universal importance of ‘tones’ in music and being enlightened by the late Donald Byrd. In this final part the engaging Mr Williamson speaks glowingly about his spiritual and saxophone inspiration, John Coltrane; his passionate views on how the word ‘Jazz’ is/has been defined; his musical peers; his participation in ‘Enlightenment’ – A Tribute to John Coltrane, and how he envisages the Jazz genre developing in the coming years.

Michael J Edwards: What does the name John Coltrane mean to you?

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Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

Steve Williamson: Damn! You know there’s a church? The Saint John Will I Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church. Actually, before Will.I.Am the legendary pop star, I was actually calling myself Will.I.Am Son! Because there is a church called ‘Will I Am Coltrane’. It’s been there for many decades now, it’s a proper church; a spiritual church… My point is that he had such a life, and for some reason I stopped listening to him – I listened to him a few times recently, I downloaded a couple of concerts – but I stopped listening to him for a while.

Michael J Edwards: What initially attracted you to the music of John Coltrane?

Steve Williamson: What didn’t! Do you understand he is the father of a language. He influenced many great saxophone players like Michael Brecker, Dave Liebman and Steve Grossman; you name it – he’s the father of that language. So when you hear Michael Brecker playing alternate phrases, understand there are certain phrases or catchphrases that everybody recognises as that individual. John Coltrane is the father of that language. He went from basically playing bebop to playing a Jazz kind of language. And he wasn’t happy with that; he wasn’t happy with staying there… He went through a major transition in 1964 and all of a sudden he had a eureka moment – and he saw God. And also he made the album ‘Love Supreme’, which everyone talks about, because it’s his most famous one; the title track has been covered by Will Downing and many others, so many people know that one. But really one needs to check out the transition that came after that, and some of his other stuff too.

So his playing went through all these various different styles; what they call ‘Sheets of Sound’ where basically he was playing scales and stuff; he grew out of that to be honest – it does sound a bit tiresome. He went further; he couldn’t even use a certain drum rhythm; he wanted all that rigid back-drop to go as well. That’s why I’m so impressed by these amazing musicians that are around, people like Orphy Robinson and Pat Thomas; I think they’re fabulous! They’re such incredible musicians, because they have a better understanding. But to answer your question, what his life meant to me is someone who’s actually an individual in this sphere of this music called Jazz. A true individual who actually followed something very deep within. And because he followed that thing very deep within, he arrived at a point. I can’t say that he arrived at that point before he died, but when I listen to his very last album it almost felt like he had; or he knew something.

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Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

I just think that journey is a very true journey; it’s a very real journey. He didn’t just stay in one place, because in nature things grow, in nature things develop. Nothing stays the same in nature – nothing! Everything is organic; trees don’t stay the same, they keep exactly the same form, but they grow; and that’s something that he (Coltrane) represents, something very organic. So I can understand why people worship John Coltrane. I can understand why some of them do that, because it is actually a mark of the things he achieved on the saxophone – meticulous! I actually believe that he is the greatest saxophone player that EVER lived! I truly believe that; I do.

Michael J Edwards: Can you expand on any other influences such as Charlie Parker?

Steve Williamson: Charlie Parker was the first guy that I was really impressed with; and who I studied and studied and studied. As I said earlier, even my entrance exam to the Guildhall of School Music was Charlie Parker’s ‘Confirmation’. I was a huge Charlie Parker fan! For me it was all about Charlie Parker for years – that was the main one. It started off with Grover Washington Jnr. and Wilton Felder.

Michael J Edwards: So once you experienced the music Grover Washington and Wilton Felder you wanted to see how far the rabbit hole goes?

Steve Williamson: You saying that about rabbit hole, it is really the road less travelled; it’s not the easiest path in life. And Coltrane represents this i.e. seeing how far the rabbit hole goes…To be honest you don’t really want to wish it on someone either, because it’s not an easy path to do that.

Michael J Edwards: Would you say he lived his life like the musical equivalent of a monk?

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Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

Steve Williamson: Well this is it; you’re right. As I said when I was speaking of my earliest influences; they were literally people like Parliament, Funkadelic and George Clinton. An even bigger influence than that was Bruce Lee; I was very much into Bruce Lee in the seventies. I’m telling you right now, I was obsessed with the guy, obsessed! In fact you can talk to Gary Crosby about this, but when they would improvise on stage, I would stand to one side using Nunchucks thus: (Steve proceeds to act out a series of Nunchuck moves). I used to practice for seven hours a day with Nunchucks. You don’t know the half of it. I used to stand on stage and I used to rap and play the sax. I wasn’t rapping really; I was doing some hard-core rhetoric mate…I used to do it over 6/4 structures and stuff like this…I would stand to one side giving my energy to the drummer or the piano player as the tune reached its climax; and I’d pick up my Nunchucks and do some moves. Honest to God.

My first real influence was Bruce Lee; so at a very young age I learnt mostly about him. I can picture it in my head very clearly the issue of Kung Fu Monthly he was featured in. I used to subscribe to it and keep each edition separated by tracing paper; they were in pristine condition. I remember one particular edition which had the ying & yang on the back. I didn’t understand the symbol but I understood about ‘Chi’. Whether you like it or not, what you do is an extension of you; but it has to be. I’d even go as far as saying that you have to be aware of that fact. But the ‘Chi’ literally is almost what my music is about now. I started understanding about space and all of a sudden I started thinking, “Shit! Miles Davis, all that shit about space; now I know what he was talking about!” Miles Davis was talking about space, but within that space there’s an entire universe…There’s a world in between that space.

Michael J Edwards: The Jazz drummer Bernard Purdie talks about the air between the hi-hat cymbals as being a note.

Steve Williamson: Where do you take that bit of information that Bernard Purdie gave you; what happens when you follow it through. This is my point – If you take someone like Coltrane as an example, he had a journey, he had a job to do. So when he was playing all this stuff and other Jazz musicians were looking at him and saying, “You’re not swinging, that’s not Jazz!” They weren’t Jazz musicians, they don’t stand alongside him. If you take that little bit of information that you just said about the cymbals, maybe somebody said it in the twenties, or thirties or forties but decided to take that little piece of information and create an entire universe just based on that information; I wonder what it would sound like? That’s the thing.

Michael J Edwards: I recently met with your good friend and peer, pianist Pat Thomas; who speaks very highly of you. He mentioned that he first encountered you in a group led by Joe Gullivan in 1985, after which time you vanished. The next time he saw you on the cover of Vogue magazine as your career was in the ascendancy. What are your thoughts on Pat Thomas as a man and as a musician?

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Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

Steve Williamson: As a man he’s a first class chap. We did a series of duet dates some years back; this was about five or six years back. And I thought, “My God!” He’s the first musician that I’ve worked with in this country that I almost didn’t have to think about the next phrase I was going to play, he was on it – fast! We played almost telepathically; we used to play and the songs had a beginning, a middle and a perfect ending; and they were all improvised! They had a beginning, a middle and a perfect ending. I used to play facing the audience, and he used to play sitting at an angle; I couldn’t see him when I was playing. And I swear to you we used to end at exactly the same time; the same note, the same time, I promise you! We’d fluctuate, because we felt the energy that it needed to come to a complete change, and all of a sudden we’re there…I swear to God he’s the most instinctive and intuitive musician I’ve ever worked with – EVER! Pat’s phenomenal! I find that as you go along you try to find people who are similar to yourself; that’s what you do. We all do that with our partners as well; our partners tend to look like us. Our pets look like us; we find things that are similar to ourselves. And also we feel comfortable, it’s like a warm blanket around you; you’re happy to know this person – Pat’s that guy; he’s a fantastic musician.

Michael J Edwards: And rolling on from that, your views on vibes player Orphy Robinson and flautist Rowland Sutherland?

Steve Williamson: Rowland and myself go back to the Guildhall (School of Music) days; he’s a very serious, studious dude. I’ve got nothing but love for Roland, he’s like family, we go back many years. What I’ve noticed with Rowland is that his soloing I find gets more interesting each time I hear it. His arrangements are always on point. Orphy – where do you start with Orphy?

What I found interesting about Orphy and Pat is that they know each other! It didn’t surprise me though that they became as close as they did. I was thinking about this when I was watching the ‘Sun Ra 100 tribute concert’ a couple of days ago. What you have with these two guys is this – If you take the players that are the types of Pat Thomas, the calibre of Pat Thomas and Orphy Robinson and myself and they become less relevant, then that destroys the scene. Why? Because the scene stays in an almost embryonic stage permanently! It’s perpetually at a stage that isn’t developed. In the music scene it’s like this – If you’re dealing with certain aspects of the music scene, whether it’s your R&B or your Pop or Rap or whatever, I can understand that as soon as a new face comes along, then it becomes the hot new face in town. However, the Rolling Stones are still going; they’re still bad. Mick Jagger was bad from birth! But if you bring that same approach to music to this genre, it’s not going to work. Here’s the reason why – because this music is something that develops organically; certain people don’t see it but there are various different ways in which people play this music that is called Jazz music. Different approaches, but we all are family and we all play this music; and we understand that there’s a past and a struggle. And even if the music is improvised there is so much learning. It’s an expression in itself, Just being able to express and understand the nuances, how to move and listen and write.

Michael J Edwards: So you’re referring to improvisation and innovation, which is what all three of you are renowned for i.e. observing the masses and doing the opposite. But as you get older you’re still pushing the boundaries. Black Top being a prime example?

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Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

Steve Williamson: Listen, Black Top is just genius! One of the great things about this music is that you’re supposed to get better with age; you see this music does in fact mature like a fine wine; and fine wines, I’ve tasted many, are fantastic after fifty years. They’re fantastic; they really are! They’re an entire story, they really are. There’s so much flavour, there’s so much body, there’s so much bouquet, so many flavours – my God! And that’s what this music is; this isn’t throw away music, this isn’t Pop music; this ain’t the McDonald’s version of music. This is Jazz, and the true exponents of this art they have to be called out, because in doing so and for certain people to be noticed in a certain way, then what you’re establishing is a hierarchy of sorts. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s normal, it’s called society. Look at the ants, look at all nature; there is such a thing called hierarchy.

That’s how it works, that’s how it grows organically; it can’t grow organically unless it’s actually built organically… And by that I mean that these players like Pat; he’s not some geezer that just happened the other day, he’s had a lifetime. When you speak to this man you’re you speaking to an intelligent and aware person. We were in Austria as a trio with Black Top the year before last, and my God we did some awesome performances! But what struck me as I was on the aeroplane, was that it was the first time in a very very long time that me and Orphy (Robinson) had had a really interesting deep conversation. We always do, but on this occasion it just occurred to me that, “My God! This is a really worldly, intelligent and aware person.” You don’t just become that, we weren’t that when we were bloody kids in the eighties and nineties. These guys don’t just come about, these guys are there and it’s important that people understand the structure and what we do and how much we actually believe. We don’t have to make big statements on how much we believe in what we do. You fall in line with what we do! This is what we do and this is the calibre. The true representative of Orphy and Pat is their calibre.

Michael J Edwards: Staying with improvisation, what are your thoughts on the ‘Nexus One World Music’ presented by Orphy Robinson and Cleveland Watkiss a.k.a. Warriors International?

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Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

Steve Williamson: First off, ‘Nexus…’ It’s fantastic what Orphy and Cleveland are doing… It’s excellent! It’s an excellent setting (St. Georges Bloomsbury). When Emi Watanabe played there recently it was so amazing and she is so majestic. The whole thing is so amazing! What else should he be doing; he should be doing this sort of thing.

The night I went down there Filament Campus was performing. And I’ve got to say to you that was literally one of the best vocal improvisational performances I’ve ever seen. You know what happened after that performance – I told her that. I told her that’s probably the best improvisational performance I’ve in ever seen from anyone! And it was at that point I decided that I’m not looking anywhere else for a singer for my gig at Pizza Express, Soho on September 1, 2014. I’ve just assembled the band. But regarding ‘Nexus’ and Warriors international, what they’re doing in terms of putting certain people together, for the most part they’re really making good choices and it works. If I were to take part I’d like to perform alongside Emi Watanabe, Filomena Campus or Zoe Rahman.

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Steve Williamson (sax), Seb Roachford (drums) and Filomena Campus (voice)
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

Michael J Edwards: Archie Shepp refers to Jazz as ‘African American’ music, ‘Black Arts’ music or ‘Black Classical’ music. Your thoughts please?

Steve Williamson: Firstly, I would say in terms of ‘Black Classical’ music, it’s something I don’t personally don’t adhere to. There was a Classical music radio station I listened to some years past and they played an amazing piece of music. I said, “Oh my God!” It was a composition written in the 18th Century by Chevalier de Saint Georges. I felt like calling the radio station, because they never mentioned that he was an African. I thought, “How could you not mention he’s an African! In the vast canon of works, how could you not mention that salient point. But I can promise you if you stab somebody, they mention it within five seconds. Here’s my point – I’m not criticising Archie Shepp in any way shape or form, but I’m going to say this in no uncertain terms about how I feel about this – when you say terms like ‘Black Classical’ music, it sows a seed of thought in someone’s head. Like this idiotic term they use: the ‘N-word’. As soon as you say it, it sows a seed of thought in someone’s head… It doesn’t do it sometimes, it does it every time to millions and millions and millions of people.

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Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

So when you say ‘Black Classical’ music, what you are implying instantly is that there’s Classical music and then there’s ‘Black Classical’ music, and then there’s also Classical music that a black person may play. Personally, I have an issue with the term African-American music also. And if it is an African American art form as it’s purported to be and widely purported to be by people like Winston Marsalis and various others, I would gladly say, “Have it, because I don’t adhere to that.” I think the music that I make is rooted somewhere slightly before that. I’ve listened to Chopin and Chopin is playing progressions that are not dissimilar to Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’. When you actually work in an environment that you didn’t create, you can call it whatever you damn well want to call it; and that’s the reality. I’m telling you now that the music in itself is bassed on harmony; in fact the entire language of learning this music or Jazz standards in all the establishments in this world are pieces of music that were written for musicals. These Jazz standards are pieces of music which have a certain progression – 2/5 we call it, which runs throughout all the pieces. When you become a master of these 2/5’s, really have mastered the language.

These are pieces that were written for musicals. Prior to these pieces of music written for musicals, there was music, there was a thing called music! But to latch onto something, I have an issue with that. Let’s be honest, Americans in general they see America as the be all and end all to a certain degree…Your average American, black or white doesn’t have the same reverence for someone from the UK or Europe as we do for them. I’ve noticed this since the eighties; it’s just this complete adulation – “I want to learn every note this person played. I want to learn every solo! He may have been stoned or lived over one hundred years ago, but I want to learn every single note he played man; and I’m going to play it too because he’s swinging!” But we have a different experience over here. We’re supposed to have by now some kind of idea of something growing, even if it’s in a small way; something that is actually growing that is unique to our experience. And that is what I find we’re almost kind of fighting against.

Michael J Edwards: What are your views on the current crop of young UK Jazz artists?

Steve Williamson: Well, I certainly think that they’re amazing. I certainly think the standard is getting better. But for me to answer that question in more depth I would have to really know who’s doing what out there and I really don’t. In terms of what the younger players are doing, I saw Garry Crosby’s Big Band, which featured Peter Edwards and others. These guys were so impressive; and they were orchestrating and conducting – it was so impressive.

Michael J Edwards: Are there any Jazz artists from the past you would have loved to collaborate with?

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Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

Steve Williamson: Yeah there are loads from the past. I was really sad when Joe Zawinal died, I was really sad when Miles died, I was so sad when Abbey Lincoln died and when Donald Byrd died. I didn’t collaborate musically with Donald Byrd, but I did play with him. There’s so many people I have in mind; some that you think are unreachable – you think, “One day I’ll play with them!” And then they die. So there’s many musicians I would like to collaborate but it’s hard to say.

Michael J Edwards: You performed at Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of James Lavelle’s Meltdown for ‘Enlightenment’ – A re-envisioning of John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’. How was that for you? Did you get energised from playing alongside other consummate musicians such as Shabaka Hutchings (sax), Ansiman Biswas (percussion), Nikki Yeoh (piano), Mark Mondesir (drums) as well as the aforementioned Orphy, Cleveland, Rowland and Pat and others?

Steve Williamson: Regarding Shabaka, I’m writing something for him. I’m writing a suite for him; he asked me.

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Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

Michael J Edwards: Wow! That is the highest compliment.

Steve Williamson: Yes, it is in fact the highest compliment. But playing with those people it was amazing! The first set in the afternoon I really played well I thought. It was good event and a good vibe.

Michael J Edwards: Would you do it again?

Steve Williamson: Hell yeah! And I think Paul Bradshaw did a fantastic job. And I must commend Rowland’s arrangements; everyone really, really felt it and played it. It was just completely the right set of people.

Michael J Edwards: What future projects do you have lined up?

Steve Williamson: Well my plan is to record, definitely record… That’s my most immediate kind of plans… I really want to record some pieces of music. The Pizza Express dates are coming up in September 2014; I’ve put a new line up together.

Michael J Edwards: Is that a quartet or a quintet?

Steve Williamson: It’s a quintet

Michael J Edwards: Any names?

Steve Williamson: Well, Filomena Campus (voice), Bennet McClean or Robert Mitchell (piano), Seb Roachford (drums) and Michael Mondesir (bass). In my mind they’re all a bunch of eccentrics; they are all individuals. I’ve chosen them really carefully; it took me six months to find them.

Michael J Edwards: And it’s simply called Steve Williamson Quintet?

Steve Williamson: This particular line up is just called ‘Steve Williamson’. I also plan to premier some pieces of work before the end of the year. It’s called ‘the orbesque ensemble’. All lowercase; it’s got a rotational symmetry to it…It looks good.

Michael J Edwards: Given your thirty plus years in and around the music business, what constructive and inspiring words of wisdom can you relay to the next generation of aspiring Jazz improvises and innovators of tomorrow?

Steve Williamson: I would say this – Perseverance would encapsulate it in one word… Don’t expect too much too soon. I know that’s the environment we’re living in and I know that’s what Hip-Hop teaches you – everything’s got to be now. You’ve got to have lots of money and lots of cars and all the rest of it. Don’t expect too much too soon, it’s all about perseverance. Don’t ever think that you’ve actually made it. As a musician you just keep learning; and the more you learn about yourself, the more you learn about life and the more you learn about your music and your art, the better it will be. And it will just get better and better and better. You’re never meant to stand still. Don’t spend your life copying someone, try to be an individual; try to find that individual in you. Every single person on this planet, that’s seven billion people, seven billion individuals – Therefore seven billion people are supposed to play seven billion different ways – Simple. This music is not about copying. So I would say to students, the more you actually learn about yourself and the more you actually know, the better and better and better and better you get. And that’s what this music has the capacity to do. I find that so exciting man; you can literally get better until you die.

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Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

Michael J Edwards: What is your vision for the future of Jazz music?

Steve Williamson: Personally, I think it is time for a new chapter. I do, I think Jazz music has the capacity to literally almost kick-start a paradigm shift if you will , within music – I think Jazz, has that. I’ll come back to the earlier issue; to call Jazz ‘Black Classical’ or some form of Classical music, means that now you’ve got people who have to learn the way that the Classical musicians learn. I understand why they’re doing it, they’re doing it for political reasons, funding streams and all the rest of it…. It’s split down the middle, but it’s more in their favour. Most people think of this music as some sort Classical music. It is what it is; you can say its high end, but Jazz is what it is. It has intricacies and subtleties that even Classical music potentially I would say haven’t managed to express yet, and I love and adore Classical music. My point being is that I think a shift is needed – So much has been done in this world by your Coltrane’s and Art Blakey’s in this world of Jazz, that I think we have enough information and enough done that it can actually shift into a new era; it can actually grow into something else. I really believe that; that’s my vision of it. That you can actually shift into a new era of people thinking about improvisation. A new era of people actually thinking about writing music; not new clothes or a new swagger, and car, but actually a new era of people thinking about improvising, a new era of making people move!

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Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

Guess what happens? You make people move, but we happen to make people move in a 4/4 structure all the time – Whether it’s Funk or Rap everything’s got to be there (Steve bangs out a 4/4 rhythm on the table). People can move differently, I’ve been listening/watching Khatak dancing from South India; it’s unbelievable; this beautiful majestic dancing, and they’re dancing to every single nuance in the beat. My point being is that something needs to grow that has that resonance, that even if it’s not the norm or typically well known, it still has enough resonance to reach all sorts of people – and that needs to happen! I don’t think that Jazz music should ever just turn into some sort of bloody Jazz/Rap or Jazz/R&B. To me that’s not a progression, that’s a digression! So that’s my vision of it, is that it grows into itself organically; that’s my vision for this music really. And then I’ll feel very comfortable and at home. Then you’ll see me all the time and I never disappear again! (Laughs)

Michael J Edwards: Thanks Steve; I’ll quote what Jalal from the Last Poets said to me after our chat – “That was a groove interview!”

Michael J Edwards

Essential Discography:
As a Band Leader –
• A Waltz For Grace (1990)
• Rhyme Time (That Fuss Was Us) (1992)
• Journey To Truth (1994)

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