Film review

Buster Williams: Bass to Infinity film premiere in NYC

Buster Williams: Bass to Infinity
(World Premiere at IFC center, part of DOC NYC. 12 November 2019. Review by Dan Bergsagel) 

Buster Williams. (Still from the film supplied as publicity photo)

By most accounts the story of Buster Williams should have been just a small piece of a story about the role of the bass in jazz. But sometimes to really get to the heart of a topic, instead of setting out to write an encyclopedia one can reveal more by focusing on one person who ties it all together. That’s what director/producer Adam Kahan does with Bass to Infinity, as we are presented with Buster Williams’ career through anecdotes and interactions between him, his friends and his partners. And through this one story – which touches on many great musicians and genres – the world we’re shown is much bigger than Williams’ alone.

The story starts with his musician father, Charles Anthony Williams Sr. – the smell of sausages and the sound of music on a Saturday morning – and how Buster went from being his pupil, to becoming his short-notice understudy, and onwards to doing a first tour. And while it’s a story of ambition and opportunity for a young teenager to play with established musicians at the top of their game, it’s also told knowingly, with gentle humour and humility. It’s also recounted through the reserved pride of the bassist, the band’s glue, whose role it is to make everyone else sound good.

Mentorship by older musicians, and the wisdom of his family kept him away from the many insalubrious ‘habits’ of his fellow musicians of the time. And while he was stung for cash by addiction-addled band leaders, he seems simply to have learnt from the experience to choose better band leaders in the future. Buster had invitations to join the brilliant but haphazard tours of Horace Silver or Miles Davis, but it was Nancy Wilson – with her year-long full itinerary, and good salary and retainer – that attracted his services.

His time supporting Wilson and Sarah Vaughan was vindicated not just in stability but in what he learnt: an approach to melody incorporating lyricism into instrumentals, and tightening up his tuning to meet Vaughan’s exacting standards (quite eloquently said, “she could hear a rat piss on cotton”).

The film itself is quite a piece, and really skilfully edited (following the Q&A after the film, one appreciates Jen Fineran‘s work here even more). It makes a very comfortable watch, alternating angles during interviews, particularly impressively during the pokey session at WBGO’s studios.

There’s a definite focus on the things that matter: tight camera shots on fingers on bass strings, audio picking up all clicks, taps and grunts of dissatisfaction. In this sense it brings some historic continuity – it was these raw artefacts of sound which inspired Buster on the old records he heard growing up: the audible thumb slide on the neck, the fluidity of a bow. Kahan is clearly someone who knows and understands the bass, and relishes dwelling on it.

There are some neat show tricks, too: the animated storytelling of his first gigs, or the evocative close focus on Williams’ flame softening his incense, his attention focused on cooking up on Buddhism instead of heroin. At times chronology is difficult to follow through the maze of interviews and anecdotes, but maybe that doesn’t matter so much as the film is hung on beautiful music.

And really, there was lots of beautiful music: with Rufus Reid on a take of Blue Bossa playing two interwoven basses; or through his Monk repertory set with the fantastic tone of Kenny Barron and Lenny White. And if the stories of his clean and sensible musical life didn’t show you Buster was a good guy, his goofy friendship with these two is heartwarming. To hear how his sensibilities crept into his music, there is Herbie Hancock‘s story from the Mwandishi sextet when Williams’ spirituality – his new found Buddhism and chanting – shone through in his fresh inspirational approach. But for me the musical treat was a duo with Larry Willis, a treasure of a live recording of Arthur Schwartz’s Alone Together.

Buster Williams is demonstrably a good man. But as with all stories, there are some complexities – hinted at through dialogue snippets in the film. Some communities might object to jazz being described as the only indigenous art form of America. Or bristle a little to hear that while Buster had his lessons on piano, drums and bass from his father (as long as he promised to leave off baseball and girls), his sisters were flatly refused, and only gained the opportunity to learn when they were married.

Buster Williams: Bass to Infinity is one of the finest music documentaries I have seen. That’s partly down to the engaging subject matter and the gorgeous archive of music to play back, but what makes it particularly special is the intimate access to fresh conversations and anecdotes, and the new live recordings. The intimate new music and recordings are really unrivalled, particularly when compared to two other major music documentaries released in the second half of 2019 – Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool and David Crosby: Remember My Name. This intimacy was only possible thanks to three things happening concurrently. The first is the power of the compositions being played shining through in the most minimal, spontaneous and acoustic form. This is shared across all three musicians: the power of just Williams’ bass, Davis’ trumpet or Crosby’s voice. The second is that, unlike Davis, Williams is still very much alive. As are many of his musician pals during recording (noted: the very sad news about the recent death of Larry Willis) so the possibility of new recordings and footage is available. And thirdly, that unlike Crosby (and also Davis), Williams is still loved by his musician pals and they don’t refuse to go anywhere near him. With these three stars aligned, Buster Williams: Bass to Infinity really is something special.

LINK: Buster Williams Movie website

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