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Monday, January 23, 2012

Tommy Williams - extraordinary, yet almost unknown.........

Tommy Williams

"I hated to follow bass solos after Tom joined the band, because he could put horn players to shame."

Benny Golson

A couple of years ago I bought the complete Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet - the Mosaic set. Like all Mosaic sets these were beautifully re-mastered with pristine sound, the package was a collector’s delight too, with beautiful photographs taken from the sessions. I’d heard some of the first recordings before, with the very young McCoy Tyner on piano, and of course Benny’s writing was always special. I had the good fortune to do a couple of tours with Benny about 10 years ago and to play his music night after night was such a thrill. It was like a hard-bop greatest hits show, except that I was playing the pieces with the guy who actually wrote everything! “Along Came Betty’, ‘Stablemates’, ‘Whisper Not’, ‘Blues March’, ‘I Remember Clifford’ etc – I had to keep pinching myself...... But one thing I now regret is not knowing about the bassist in one of the later editions of the Jazztet – Tommy Williams, because I could have asked Benny about him.

Before getting the Jazztet collection I had never heard of Tommy Williams, and as I listened through all the music on the CDs I was startled to hear an amazing bass solo on ‘Hi-Fly’, and then another on ‘2 Degrees East, Three Degrees West’ - and there were more. In fact there were a lot of bass solos, much more than one would normally hear on a hard-bop recording. With the exception of Paul Chambers, who was a celebrated soloist and got more leeway in the soloing department than most other bassists (probably because of the amount of solos Miles gave him), there might be one or two bass solos on a typical hard-bop recording, at most. But here was solo after solo – and what solos!

I looked at the personnel on the sleeve of the CD, expecting to see a name I’d recognise, but - Tommy Williams? I’d never heard of him, and of course went immediately to the internet and found almost no information on him there. On the liner notes to the Jazztet recordings Benny mentioned what a great soloist Williams was, but also said that his wife had hated the jazz life and had put pressure on him to give up playing, which he eventually did. The jazz life of those days was really rough, and I can imagine it must have been very difficult for a spouse to deal with – the absences, unsociable hours, prevalence of substance abuse and the small money. So no doubt Williams’ wife had her reasons for getting him to quit, but if these recordings are anything to go by the Williams’ domestic harmony was bought at the price of depriving the world of someone who would undoubtedly have become one of the great bassists in jazz.

The solos are extraordinary – in fact in terms of negotiating swinging hard-bop changes on the bass, Chambers is the only other bassist I can think of who gets around the instrument as agilely as Williams (though George Duvivier on his day could hold his own in any company). His playing is maybe a little less legato than Chambers’, but he uses more expressive nuance on the bass than PC – glissandos, drop-offs, a great variety of attack – all are used in the service of constructing swinging and totally convincing solos. And the walking is not too shabby either! Check out the virile walking line on ‘Hi-Fly’ - very special.

Apparently Williams went on to play with Stan Getz, on some of his Bossa recordings (what a difference to what he was doing with Golson!), and I’ve found him on a recording well known to trombonists - Great Kai and JJ - which apart from Kai Winding and JJ Johnson, also features a stellar rhythm section containing Bill Evans with either Paul Chambers and Roy Haynes (‘Blues and the Abstract Truth’ rhythm section!) or with Tommy Williams and Art Taylor. No doubt he’s on a few more things too – but not many. Such a shame, what a talent........

Here are a few of the bass solos from the Farmer-Golson album – I would encourage you to get the full set of these recordings, there’s so much great writing and playing on them.

I’m sure Mrs Williams was happy to have her husband leave the jazz life. I’m equally sure we would have been happy had he stayed.........

Tommy Williams


  1. Just found your blog after googling Tommy Williams, as you did! I was listening to a killer record by Blue Mitchell called "Smooth as the Wind", and went searching for the personnel. Haven't heard of TW before, but he's sure swinging on that album. Will check him out on the Jazztet stuff. Cheers!

  2. Count me as another who found your blog after googling Tommy Williams. In my case it was after watching a YouTube video called "Stan Getz & Charlie Byrd on the Perry Como Show." Someone left a comment at the video identifying the bassist as Tommy Williams, who they claimed was their father. While researching Williams did you happen to come across anything about him having children?

  3. I got to Tommy Williams through the duet with Golson on "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" (on Golson's "From 1 to 10", also in the Mosaic set). For what it's worth, although he's been listed as playing on Getz/Gilberto, the bassist on that one was TiĆ£o Neto, from Brazil. Williams did play with Getz, though (in a pianoless quartet with Jimmy Raney in '63, for instance).


  4. Thanks for the information Fernando!