Friday, December 26, 2008

Steve Williamson: Journey to Truth

There is nothing that could have prepared those who knew of Steve Williamson only from his first album, A Waltz for Grace, for what awaited them upon dropping Journey to Truth into the CD player. The cover photo and CD graphics should be a dead giveaway that this cat was up to something different - from the pix of Williamson that harken back to the early 1970s to the hip-hop flavored graphics - this was not going to be a collection of post bop numbers. The very first track sounds inspired by John Coltrane and Rashied Ali's jams on Interstellar Space (a sound that will be replicated on track 4, "Affirmation"). The second track, with its hard funk rhythm section and inspired vocals by Jhelisa Anderson, should seal it. Williamson was out to make a statement.

In fact, it seems like a concept album. The problem is, as I have mentioned elsewhere, that Journey to Truth SOUNDS like three separate albums - each going in its own direction, which is not healthy for a concept album. There aren't any bad tracks on the album, though the raps on the middle section are probably less inspired than music and vocals found on the rest of the tracks. It's just that Journey to Truth doesn't make for a particularly coherent listening experience.

I'm partial to the first section, The Journey, which is what I imagine Plunky Branch and crew of Oneness of Juju would have sounded like if they had traveled ahead in time a couple decades. From the Coltranesque sax and percussion excursions on "Meditation" and "Affirmation," to the title track, the instrumental "Oh Africa Africa Africa," to the smoking cover of "Celestial Blues," Williamson hits all the right notes. The music is tight, the mood is set, and the listener can groove and meditate at the same time.

The second section, The Pffat Factor, will probably be mildly reminiscent of Miles Davis' Doo Bop, or perhaps Guru's Jazzmatazz albums. Personally I tend groove much more on Williamson's sax playing than his rapping, and think that Black Thought has had much better moments with his own crew, The Roots (whose albums I strongly recommend). The last track in the section is an instrumental, and seems like it could have had potential for the rotation at a smooth jazz station.

The final section, That Fuss, is comprised of three solid jazzy R&B numbers somewhat focused on social-political concerns. I'm not sure how tuned in Williamson was to Plunky Branch's 1980s work with The Oneness of Juju, but it seems safe to point out that Williamson was mining similar territory. Those last three tracks seem like they could have been quite radio-friendly. Overall, Williamson is communicating a positive message, attempting to incite his listeners to pursue spiritual and social change - and that is the constant in these otherwise very divergent sections making up the finished product. It's all well-produced, Williamson definitely knows how to write and play, and he's surrounded himself with an able crew of musical performers. If you keep an open mind, you certainly won't be bored.

The problem, to the extent that it is a problem, is that Williamson seems like one of those musically and intellectually curious cats who simply is interested in so much that he ends up going off in multiple directions at once. His music is very hard to pigeonhole that way, but it is an approach that isn't conducive to record sales. Hence, this would be his last recording as a leader, so far. The suits at Verve would drop him from the roster, and Williamson would fade into obscurity. Occasionally I read rumors that he's still recording, is involved with two different combos (one that sticks to relatively straight-ahead jazz and one that pursues the funk and hip-hop direction that characterized this album) and apparently continues to be quite impressive on stage.

Since I've already mentioned the involvement of one member of the legendary alternative rap crew The Roots, Black Thought, I would be remiss in my blogging duties if I did not mention the involvement of two other members: Hubb and B.R.O.theR.? (the artist usually known as ?estlove).

As an aside - I'd be curious to hear the album that came in between 1990's A Waltz for Grace and 1995's Journey to Truth: that is 1992's Rhyme Time (That Fuss Was Us!).

Steve Williamson - tenor sax (tracks 1, 2, 4, 9, 10, 12), alto sax (tracks 2, 11, 13), soprano sax (track 6, 7, 8, 11), bells (tracks 1, 4), programming (tracks 2, 7, 8, 10, 11), drum programming (track 6), keyboards (tracks 6, 7, 10, 11), EWI (tracks 6, 7), piano (tracks 11, 12), cowbell (track 8), vocal execution (tracks 6, 7), organ licks (track 13)
Sola Akingbola - percussion (tracks 1, 4, 5), djembe drums (tracks 1, 4)
Jhelisa Anderson - vocals (tracks 2, 5, 12)
Anthony Tidd - piano (tracks 2, 3), organ intro (track 6)
Marc Cyril - bass (tracks 2, 9, 11, 12, 13)
Hubb (Leonard Hubbard) - bass (track 5), piano (track 11)
Michael Mondesir - bass (tracks 6, 7, 8)
B.R.O.theR.? (Ahmir Khalib Thompson) - drums (tracks 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 12)
Pete Lewinson - drums (tracks 11, 13)
Henri Jelani Defoe - guitar (tracks 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, 13)
Jason Rebello - rhodes (track 5)
Black Thought (Tariq Trotter) - rap (tracks 9, 12)
Dennis Rollins - trombone (tracks 11, 13)
Pamela Anderson - vocals (track 11)
Noel McKoy - vocals (tracks 12, 13)

The Journey
1. Meditation (3:23)
2. Journey to Truth (7:48)
3. Oh Africa Africa Africa (6:08)
4. Affirmation (3:27)
5. Celestial Blues (6:56)
The Pffat Factor
6. Part I: Who Dares (5:56)
7. Part II: They Don't Wanna Hearit! (6:31)
8. Part III: Rough (5:42)
9. Pffat Time (6:02)
10. Antigua (3:53)
That Fuss
11. How Ya Livin? (4:37)
12. Blakk Planets (5:32)
13. Evol Lover (4:57)

All tracks composed and arranged by Steve Williamson, except track 2 (vocal arranged by Jhelisa Anderson), track 5 (written by Andy Bey), track 11 (written by Pamela Anderson and Steve Williamson) and track 13 (written by Noel McKoy).

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