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Bass, Heavy: Buster Williams, William Parker, Linda May Han Oh, Matt Penman, Josh Abrams

Jimmy Katz
Buster Williams, whose new album is 'Audacity'

In Take Five this week, some killer bassists step out front.

Buster Williams & Something More, “Where Giants Dwell”

An acknowledged master of the bass for well over 40 years, Buster Williams has also been a stalwart bandleader and composer, though the public record doesn’t always show it. New Yorkers know his trademark band, Something More, as one of the elite post-bop combos around — but until now, its most recent release had been a 2008 tribute to Herbie Hancock, with whom Williams played in Mwandishi.

Audacity is the title that Williams aptly chose for his new studio album, just out on Smoke Sessions Records. It captures the band in top form and full stride, working at a level of group intuition that would seem imposing if it didn’t feel so easy. (It isn’t.) The album features new compositions by each member of Something More, including no fewer than six by Williams. “Where Giants Dwell” is a modal burner that you just might recognize from a recent episode of Jazz Night in America. Note the sly convolutions in the form, and the spectacular solo by Colligan. Note, too, the implications of the title: Williams claims it was inspired by a drive through the Austrian Alps, but it could just as easily be about his own home.

William Parker, “We All Danced (feat. Fay Victor)”

One word that readily comes to mind with respect to William Parker is “capacious.” It describes his sound on the bass, which can seemingly fill any room, as well as his worldview, which is generous, roving and unbound. It also describes his new 3-CD boxed set, Voices Fall From the Sky, just out on Aum Fidelity. Featuring 17 singers across twice as many original compositions, it’s a mother lode of independent thought in a searching mode.


Parker wrote the music on these three discs at different points in time, and recorded it in a range of configurations. On more than a few tracks, he doesn’t play any instrument. But his bass is the anchoring presence on “We Often Danced,” which features a close compatriot, Fay Victor, reading a poem in character, as a cleareyed survivor of the Middle Passage. “The more we danced the brighter the light became,” she reflects, over a murmur of commentary — from Dave Sewelson on alto saxophone, Heru Shabaka-Ra on trumpet  and Jason Kao Hwang on violin, among others. Later, we hear Victor conclude with what sounds like an impromptu melody: “I am free and never will I be anything else.”

William Parker will perform some of this music during his residency at The Stone at the New School, June 26 to 30.

Linda May Han Oh, “Deepsea Dancers”

Last Tuesday, Linda May Han Oh accepted the honor for Best Bassist at the Jazz Journalists Association Awards. A few hours later, I caught her at the Village Vanguard with Sound Prints, the knockout band jointly led by Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano. Her comportment in both settings was typical: unruffled, coolly dangerous, with a complete absence of overweening ego.

Credit Shervin Lainez
Linda May Han Oh

"Deepsea Dancers," by Linda May Han Oh

You can hear that personality in full effect on this version of “Deepsea Dancers,” which has its premiere here. The composition is one of her quieter pieces on Walk Against Wind, which she released on Biophilia Records this spring. This new take features Greg Ward on alto saxophone, Matt Mitchell on piano and Ches Smith on drums, along with a string quartet. The melody unfolds in a calmly cinematic vein, over which the improvisers take turns performing solo pirouettes. (Mitchell, as usual, is especially worth your close attention.) Be sure to stay with the track long enough for its quickening pulse, which begins around the six-minute mark.

Matt Penman, “Big Tent, Little Tent”

You could almost point to Matt Penman’s deeply satisfying new album, Good Question, as the beau ideal of sophisticated post-bop in the present age. It’s his first full effort as a leader in a decade, during which he’s had other prominent outlets for his playing and his pen — notably the SFJAZZ Collective and James Farm.


As in those two ensembles, Penman is surrounded by pure excellence here: tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Aaron Parks and drummer Obed Calvaire. This soulful tune, “Big Tent, Little Tent,” is the decisive closer, and one of two tracks on the album to feature Nir Felder on guitar. Grooving at an easy clip, it incorporates a few harmonic twists — and sets the stage for some vintage Mark Turner heroics (notably a bluesy, ingenious run that begins at 2:28) and some nice fretboard work from Felder.

Joshua Abrams, “Scratching On It”

The Chicago bassist Joshua Abrams, a veteran of bands led by Nicole Mitchell and Mike Reed, has made a series of magnetic, unclassifiable albums by a group he calls Natural Information Society. For his new album, Excavations 1, he went in a less sociable direction. Released on Feeding Tube Records, digitally and in a limited run of 500 LPs, it’s an album of solo bass improvisations, with a heavy emphasis on textural and timbral experimentation.


The track that concludes the album is “Scratching On It” — both an accurate description of its methodology and a good reminder of Abrams’s sense of humor. There’s no regular tempo, no real tonal center, no signpost of any kind, beyond the tactile dimensions of the instrument. What Abrams is after here is an extreme communion with sound. Like the rest of Excavations 1, it’s stark and unaccommodating, but also intimate and earnest.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.