Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"Whatever You Are Smoking, I Want Some!"

Buster Williams
I was recently reminiscing about my travelin' days as a sideman with various jazz bands. I used to play quite often with the Buster Williams Quartet in the first decade of the new millennium. If you aren't familiar with Williams, you should look him up on allmusicguide.com: he has an extensive discography as a sideman and a leader. To me, Williams is part of the old guard of musicians who payed dues in the clubs and traveling the world with people like Miles Davis, Betty Carter, Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, and so forth. He's the type of musician who, although continually excited about music and making music, is difficult to impress because he's already played with EVERYBODY! If I play something I think is really hip, well, Buster heard Herbie Hancock play it while I was wearing diapers. But I think it's important for young musicians to mix with older cats on the bandstand; it's that sort of apprenticeship system that's sort of disappearing and being replaced by jazz academia. Such is the state of things, but I digress.....

Lenny White
Holding down the drum chair was usually the great Lenny White. White is most known for his stint in the 1970's with the pioneering fusion band Return To Forever.  However, he has major jazz credentials, and is clearly part of the lineage of drummers like Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy Cobb, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams. I remember my first hearing of RTF's " Hymn of The Seventh Galaxy" when I was in high school and being enthralled by White's grooving interpretations. Back then, I never imagined I would actually play with Lenny White someday in the future.
Steve Wilson

Our man on alto and soprano saxophones was the distinguished Steve Wilson. (Hopefully, you already read my interview of Wilson in an earlier post. It's quite extensive...) This was pretty much the core group for years, with some variations, depending on scheduling. Sometimes we would have Stefon Harris or Steve Nelson on vibes, sometimes we would have Vincent Herring on alto, occasionally Carl Allen would sub on drums. But Williams, White, Wilson, and Colligan was the norm. Lenny would always say he thought it was a great mix of age groups; Buster is mid 60's, Lenny was late 50's at the time, Steve is mid to late 40's , and yours truly mid to late 30's. Oftentimes nowadays you see either an entire band of young cats or an entire band of older cats. Unless someone can give me a good example, I think it's rare to have that kind of mix.

I'm trying to set the stage for what I think is kind of a funny story. Hopefully it's at least as funny as your average Reader's Digest anecdote, or maybe some story about the 40's that your Grandma tells every Christmas. ("And would you believe that I ended up with an overcooked turkey? And in those days, we couldn't get turkeys so often because of the war, so sometimes we would eat bologna on pumpernickel bread...." " Ha ha ha, that's hilarious, Grandma....")Anyway, this was a tour of the U.K., and we were finally at the last gig of the tour. We were in a small club in Edinburgh, Scotland. This was also a radio broadcast for the BBC, although the piano was pretty sub-standard and the sound in general was not ideal (as is often the case in these small clubs). This was the second set of the gig; the first set had been pretty exhausting as usual, but in a good way. Our sets always seemed to be quite epic, as if we were trying to best ourselves every time out of the gate.

We were playing a mix of Buster's older hits, like "Dual Force", and "Christina", and his great arrangement on the old standard " I Didn't Know What Time It Was." But we were also playing tunes from Buster's "Griot Liberte" CD that came out a few years back. Much of the music from that CD was inspired by the illness and near death of Buster's wife. It's a wonderful album, recorded at Rudy Van Gelder's studio; I found recording there was quite an interesting experience in and of itself.(Van Gelder has a main piano that is in a recording booth, and a rehearsal piano outside of the recording booth. This actually makes sense because you minimize wear and tear on any one piano. However, if you have to go back and forth, and you are rehearsing a bit before each take, then it gets confusing. I was running back and forth between the rehearsal piano and the recording piano for hours! Also, once I was in the booth with the recording piano, the headphones were picking up a frequency of a very right-wing radio station. Basically I was forced to listen to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity for hours while we recorded! If you know me, you know that right -wing talk radio is my Kryptonite.......)

So we began the second set, and the second tune was "The Wind Of An Immortal Soul". This tune has basically an AAB form, where the A sections are in 4/4 and the B sneaks into 3/4. Sometimes, we would obscure the 3/4 with various forms of musical trickery. On this night, however, during my solo, we had a rare rhythmic miscommunication. During the B section, something happened where I just couldn't hear what was happening with anything:rhythm, form, harmony, you name it. Plus, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I was half in the bag at that point. (That's a old slang terminology for excessive alcohol consumption. Hey, we were in Scotland. Did you know that they don't call it Scotch in Scotland, they call it whiskey? Boy, I sure did!)

"Use the Force...to get acting work!"
On the verge of having a musical panic attack, I remembered something attributed to Joe Henderson: "Sometimes, the best music music is made when you are lost and you are trying to find your way BACK!" (I heard this in my head the same way Luke Skywalker could hear the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi as he fought the Dark Side:" Use the force... Let go of your feelings...Save your money, cause your career sucks after Return Of The Jedi....") I figured, well, this is the time to put that wisdom to the test. I pressed on, lost as I could be. I maintained a pretty good poker face, in fact, I lowered my head as to give the impression of deep, deep inspiration. I played and listened, trying to find my way back to the top of the form. Still nothing. I began to sound like a cross between Cecil Taylor and a Elephant sitting on a piano.

I really started to sweat: however, I figured eventually I would figure out where I was in the song. Time stood still, and I started to have serious doubts about my musical career. Visions of law school crossed my mind as I flailed away at the keys. My head was down even further, my eyes closed. This is it, I told myself, I'm done, washed up, I'm fired, this is my last gig with this band. And then all of a sudden, a cheer rang out from the audience. It seemed that my ploy had actually worked! I tricked them into thinking I was having a keyboard revelation only by a commitment to conviction. I'm telling you, the crowd went nuts! And then, Buster played a single note signaling the B section, and the world rushed back and I could finally breathe again. I neatly wrapped up my solo and we moved on to the next song amidst wild applause and adulation. (Keep in mind that this was recorded for the BBC, so a recording of this is out there somewhere...oy vey...)

I looked up, rather sheepishly, and looked at Steve Wilson, who yelled across the bandstand, "Whatever you're smoking, I want some!" Of course, after the set, Lenny White's comment was something to the effect of, "I really thought that George had snapped and we were going to take him  to the hospital after that solo!"


  1. the glen beck photo was a nice touch!

  2. LOL! Great story, great writing.

  3. Jeff Clayton described a gig in a big band with Pete Christlieb. When Christlieb's solo came, as he walked past Jeff he said, "Watch me sell these people a sack of s***!" It was AABA form. Pete played in solid time, but hit every minor second and irrelevant note he could think of through the first two A sections. When the B section came up, he locked right into an obvious phrase to mark the change, and the crowd erupted to its feet, a standing ovation in the middle of a solo! Now, THAT's some musician humor, imo

  4. Can you smoke while playing that trumpets?

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