However, a major black writer who has been overlooked too long is Richard A. Williams, who wrote daily in numerous forms, including poetry, essays, novels, plays and biographies. A repository for much of his work exists at the University of Rochester, tended mostly by Rare Books and Special Collections Director Richard Peek. And a musician who discovered and received inspiration from Williams is Tyrone Brown, Philadelphia bassist extraordinaire who has performed with a who’s who of jazz musicians, including Max Roach, Odean Pope, Dave Burrell and and Pat Martino, among others. Turning due attention to Williams’ vast body of works over thirty-plus years, Brown has compressed the feeling and themes of Williams’ writings into a six-movement suite. (That’s Williams’ photograph on the album’s cover.)
Suite For John A. Williams covers musically four of Williams’ novels, Night Song (1961), The Man Who Cried I Am (1967), Captain Blackman (1976) and Clifford’s Blues (1999), as well as his book of essays, This Is My Country Too (1965). And in cooperation with the University of Rochester, Brown was able to include a recoring of Williams reading from his book of poetry, Safari West, as his composition colors and animates the reading.
One of Brown’s primary interests has always been in string arrangements, and he has released recordings of his string sextet on Naxos, as well as work with violinist John Blake. So, it’s not surprising that much of the musical expression of Williams’ work includes string arrangements, specifically employing most of the musicians from Song Of The Sun.. "The Man Who Cried I Am," Williams’ story of a cancer-afflicted black American abroad who learns of a plan of genocide (his cancer thus symbolizing the corruption he encounters) surprisingly receives gentle treatment from Brown, as the string quartet plays a bolero-like theme allowing for light improvisation by also saxophonist Bobby Zankel and violinist Melissa Ortega Locati. On the other hand, "This Is My Country Too" (2nd Movement), the account of Williams’ road trip across "white America" in a new car (a significant target for racial-profiling law enforcement authorities), features Brown in a blues-drenched initial solo that sets up a searing solo by Zankel, and then Adam Williams’ understated guitar solo, solidly in the groove. "Captain Blackman," the "3rd Movement," Williams’ chronicle of black military experiences conceived by a wounded soldier in Vietnam (a subject inadequately documented, even though the movie Glory made some amends), receives musical depiction through Zankel’s bop-based solo over the changing rhythms created by Brown and drummer Craig McIver without the elaboration of strings or chorded instruments. And "Clifford’s Blues," which covers the almost entirely overlooked experiences of black people in Nazi Germany receives melancholy, blues-drenched treatment as a melody stated by Zankel over strings, mournful and, like the blues, still resolute in the face of adversity. Then "Night Song" (5th Movement,) Williams’ description of the life of a jazz musician, with emphasis upon Charlie Parker’s genius and self-destructive behavior, as part of Brown’s imagination, receives not the bop lines that one would expect, but rather a breezy, melodic treatment by Zankel over its descending chords, accompanied by Williams.
The final movement, and the one that combines word and music, is Williams’ readings from Safari West, the 1998 winner of the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. With lines like "This was a home through which I passed/But did not know ‘til I was gone." While Williams reads his own words, Brown’s group provides equally poetic accompaniment of legato strings over Brown’s animating vamp and McIver’s brushed textures, until Williams stop reading at times, allowing Zankel to expand upon the theme with urgent eloquence, a complement to Williams’.
Tyrone Brown’s Suite For John A. Williams is one of those uncommon recordings that creates a synthesis between two art forms, the music illuminating the literature and the literature giving rise to the music. The CD is an original and one that rewards listeners who study or in general appreciate the sometimes documented inter-relationship between jazz and literature.