Mysteries in jazz come in all different shapes and sizes. There’s the outright ornery deflection of Cecil Taylor’s stage presence, distracting attention from his essential warmth; the jagged, mysterioso silences of Thelonious Monk, alternately shadowing and illuminating his outward trickery; even the laconic, hipster phrasing of Lester Young’s every day speech contains a certain element of surprise that keeps the unattuned ear on edge. What, then, to make of Joe Williams, now that we are a few years down the road from the singer’s death? As soon as one identifies one influence flowing into the river of his honeyed, bright baritone, he switches suddenly from one mode to another, blending styles and ignoring boundaries, but always remaining emotionally accessible. To wit, his vocabulary is a remarkable amalgam, a fascinating marking point in post-War popular music: on one side, the toe-curling sweetness of mid-century cabaret styles, slithering smoothly out of wax all over the country; on the other side, the rising tide of that slimmed-down, smoothed-out version of boogie adapted from all the old territory bands of the Midwest, what came to be called Rhythm and Blues. And right down the middle of it all, the care-worn corners of the blues themselves.
Joe Williams was an immense talent in his ability to fashion these (admittedly) disparate sources into one thoroughly seamless product, smooth in its execution and full of integrity in its depth. Not coincidentally, when he joined the Basie orchestra at the very end of 1954, that great musical machine was also undergoing a similar process of reconciliation. The thirties version of the K.C. big band itself being one of the wellsprings of the loosened 4/4, riff-studded strut that shimmied its way into early R & B, this mid-fifties, so-called "New Testament" conglomeration was in the process of consolidation and slimming-down, an intentional smoothing out that always pleased but was rarely breathtaking. Walter Page and Jo Jones replaced by Eddie Jones and Sonny Payne simply meant studied rather than organic swing.
A perfect example of this process is included on this best-of retrospective compilation, in Verve’s The Definitive series, during the tune "Goin’ to Chicago." Originally recorded by Basie in February of 1939, it is a masterpiece of loose, understated swing - the leader on uncluttered, willowy organ, letting Page and Jones jostle the rhythm along with strong leisure, Jimmy Rushing finding new, subtly altered ways of delivering the vocals delicately enough to keep from trampling Lester Young’s delicious clarinet obligati. But in the version here from 1958, a bloated Basie organization (with Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross aboard) pounds its point home, ignoring the fact that the more bombast it uses, the farther it gets from actually making that point. Instead of the fantastic riffs built spontaneously by Buck Clayton and Young, jabbed lightly at Rushing’s revelations, one is overblown by blaring brass figures topped with unison vocal lines by Ross. It’s not that it’s an unappealing performance, it’s simply that all the inborn insouciance of the classic Basie band - that genius mixture of tension and economic release that brought the 20th Century into the thrill of four-to-the-floor figures - that classy cool has gone the way of glistening, theatrical show stoppers.
Accordingly, then, this volume is at its best (which occurs repeatedly) when the slick-clicking bombast is held in check and Williams is forced to explore the other side of the roots that inform him. Interestingly, this best-of collection has been culled from both the Verve and Blue Note (including Roulette and Solid State) vaults, so that it highlights not only his mid-50’s stay with Basie, but his early-60’s solo forays with Basie-ite small groups, as well as his later career collaborations with such big-band luminaries as the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis outfit. Thus, Williams shines on a "Party Blues" where he enters a furious scat duel with Ella Fitzgerald, amidst the intimate space afforded him by the ensemble on "Alone Together," and the touching tremors of Ellington’s "Come Sunday." One wishes for more moments such as these, when Williams’ more heartfelt strains come into view, when taste takes over the urge for one more ten-ton cadenza. The unassailability of Williams’ instrument was never really in question - the ocean-deep dulcet layers of its mile-wide vibrato make sure of that - it’s just a question of what exactly it intends to say.