Buster Williams Bass to Infinity
(USA, 90 minutes)
Dir. Adam Kahan
It’s often struck me that Francois Truffaut only made one mistake in adapting David Goodis’ noir thriller Down There into his brilliantly tragi-comedy Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur le pianiste). He should have changed the doomed pianist Charlie into a bassist because they’re the true existential players in jazz, the ones who actually hold the bands together and are never acknowledged for their genius.
Buster Williams says as much in Adam Kahan’s innovative and perceptive film about him. As we discover, it’s typical that Williams sees the funny side in having the role of understanding what the drummer, the pianist, the saxophonist and the trumpeter are going to do and tying their desires all together into a coherent propulsive force. “And then they want me to solo,” he says, “but I’m tired!”
Williams breaks the stereotype of the doomed jazz musician: he’s been married for over fifty years to his childhood sweetheart, loved his parents, and never was addicted to drugs. He’s been a professional bass player since the age of 18, when he toured with the legendary bop players Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt, a hair-raising year-long ride with at least one famous junkie (Ammons), which is brilliantly rendered in Fifties-era graphic styled animation by Matt Smithson.
Kahan shows Williams as a man of great empathy, whether it’s backing up a singer or a bassist (the great Rufus Reid) or a saxophonist (the legendary Benny Golson). The director invites us to see and hear how Williams listens to others, pushing them in the best direction so they can play what they want with just the right intonation and style. As a wonderful stylist in his own right, Williams has played with many of the greatest musicians of the past sixty years: trumpeter Miles Davis, pianists Herbie Hancock, Kenny Barron, Errol Garner, saxophonists Wayne Shorter and Dexter Gordon, drummer Tony Williams, guitarist Larry Coryell. The list is endless.
If there is one absolute claim to fame for Williams, it’s his ability to back up singers from Betty Carter to Sarah Vaughn, from Sathima Bea Benjamin to Shirley Horn and, above all, for Nancy Wilson, a hugely successful vocalist who paid him well to be in her band for much of the Sixties.
Kahan’s film isn’t a laundry list of great performances dug out from the archives. It is about the essence of jazz: the way people can communicate through their music. Williams does that every day, but he is also quite articulate—the opposite of the laconic musician. He elicits great stories from his friends Golson and Reid and is just as free and open with his sisters, daughter and wife. It doesn’t feel a surprise at all when Kahan reveals that Williams is a long practicing Buddhist—a member of the Soka Gakkai International, which believes in environmental healing and nuclear disarmament, and reaching enlightenment (if possible) in this lifetime.
Buster Williams Bass to Infinity is a terrific portrait of somebody rare: a truly mature artist. I’ve been watching, writing and programming jazz films for over three decades. This is one of the best jazz docs I’ve ever seen: watch it if you can!
Buster Williams Bass to Infinity screened at DOC NYC.