Buster Williams at Yoshi's

4 minute read

Last night my friend Jen and I went to see Buster Williams at Yoshi’s, officially kicking off the New Year’s Resolution

Tickets for this show were an impulse purchase after someone whose musical opinion I respect sent me

this article from the SF Chronicle and expressed much regret that he wouldn’t be able to go. I wasn’t familiar with Buster Williams’ work but the article intrigued me, as did the ringing endorsement, so it didn’t seem like a gamble to go to the show “sound unheard,” so to speak. And at $18 a ticket it was a no-brainer anyway.

The band for the evening was composed of:

We got to our seats just before the lights went down and the band hit the stage. They wasted no time with small talk or introductions and dove right into the first song. Unfortunately I didn’t write down the set list when it was finally announced so I can’t tell you the names of everything they played. Stefon Harris was featured first. The vibes are not my favorite jazz instrument, and especially not when they’re over-amplified. A tip to Yoshi’s: you don’t have to amp up a jazz quartet in a room that size. You’re gonna hear them well in every corner without it. That the sound carries is part of the point of musical instruments. OK, maybe the bass needs an amp but I refuse to believe that a piano, drum kit and vibraphone do.

Ah, but I digress. Despite my misgivings about the vibes I gotta say that Harris really impressed me. Then again, it’s hard not to be impressed when some guy is going totally medieval with the mallets like that. Being in the third row of tables we were close enough that even over the music you could sometimes just hear Harris singing along with what he was playing, and he was really into it. You almost got the feeling that the notes were falling from his mouth and landing on the vibes and that’s really what was making the sound.

After Stefon Harris was done going to town it was Patrice Rushen’s turn. And daaaaaaamn can this gal play. I mean, considering the group there wasn’t really any doubt that she’d be good, so the fact that she is ought not be remarkable. Still, she completely blew me away with her technical ability as well as the emotion she was able to transmit through her music. It was really great stuff and I’ll probably look into some of her solo work because of it.

Patrice finished her solo in a flurry of keys and the band leader got his first chance to really strut his stuff (keep in mind, we’re still only on the first song here). Have you ever looked at someone who’s been playing standing bass for decades? The hands of that person are incredible, if they’re anything like the hands of Buster Williams. Look at the first two fingers on your right hand. Odds are that your fingers are fairly straight all the way up, knuckle to nail. Watching Williams play it looks like the part of those fingers from the top knuckle on up bends in towards the thumb, making it look like his fingers are anything but straight. Are they really? It was hard to tell, since when I wasn’t gaping at the music he was playing I was looking at his huge knuckles. Yes, I went to a jazz show and watched some man’s knuckles. Is that so wrong? I think not. Perhaps it was all those years of playing building up the tendons and little muscles in his fingers, but the knuckles on both of his hands seemed larger than normal. This can hardly be considered a problem. On the contrary, considering the incredible things that he was making that bass do it must be surmised that his hands are absolutely perfectly shaped for making the most of that instrument. Whether they started out that way or not doesn’t matter as the net result is still the best bass playing I’ve ever had the honor of hearing.

Solos over, the song ends and they move on with the rest of the show. Each song in the set included solos by these three players. Lenny White? Did he get any lovin’ at all? Yes, on the last song of the show, he finally did. I’m not a drummer and typically not affected much by drum solos, even when they are (as in this case) really good. Sorry, Lenny. It’s not you, it’s me.

The highlight of the show for me came in the middle of the set. The other three left the stage and Buster Williams indulged us with unadulterated bass. He started out with Concierto de Aranjuez then slid easily into a fantastic soulful version of Summertime. It was really incredible and almost a shame when he stopped and called the other band members back on stage.

The entire show ran for more than an hour and a half without a break, but had I been asked I never would have guessed that it went that long. Time just flew by. It turns out that at 10pm there was a second set (rather than, as I thought, a second show) but those tickets had to be purchased separately. Also, it was almost 10pm and some of us had almost an hour drive home plus had to be up to be at work at 7am the next day.