Marcus Williams: Rising in the East
Many people take the textural, musical landscape approach to ambient/New Age Jazz/whatever and turn the possibilities of mood and meditative introspection and turn them into awful realities of musical wallpaper; music so mellow you want sleep, so down-tempo you want to die.
Miles Davis, Weather Report, and the forefathers of New Age Jazz, Ralph Towner and Oregon (those not old enough to know ask your parents or him aunts and uncles what these names mean), sowed the seeds that have often brought bitter musical harvests of sad, mutated fruit. Like what McDonald's did to the amazing hamburger, many artists have done to the idea of melding a rock and pop-based sensibility's lush musical textures with melodic, harmonically centered improvisation.
Marcus Williams is an exception. Perhaps it is his upbringing in musically fertile St. Louis, MO, or his vast talent, but whatever it is, he has taken the long-abandoned baton of the original "jazz fusion" movement and started running with it.
What are your earliest musical memories?
"When I was about three years old, I remember being exposed to what my parents listened to. My mother liked to listen to blues music from Junior Wells and Albert King and my father liked to listen to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. I remember sitting next to the speakers and tuning in and as I got older, I could remember the music melodies. So I would say to my father, "Hey I know that song," he would ask, "How ?" I said "When I was a baby, I heard you play that record a lot."
Showing musical talent early in life, he went on to study drums, vibraphone, piano, and trumpet. After high school he attended Berklee School of Music in Boston, where he played with and learned from many high-level musicians. There he was exposed to the music of Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and both electric and acoustic Miles Davis. These experiences brought him into the realms of production and electric jazz, and the album Through My Eyes.
The song "A Beautiful Place" opens the CD and sets the stage for the rest of the album - an arrangement style akin to sculpting the sound as silence gives way to disembodied tones that become textures melting into a song with driving yet spacious drums, elegantly soulful piano, and wordless vocal that remind one of the great Brazilian multi-instrumentalist master Nana Vasconcelos (especially his soundtrack to the movie "Apocalypse Now").
Gliding above and through this melange is ethereal trumpet playing blues as an abstract truth. The style of fusion that he bases his style on is long on texture and sound, and has very little of the chops-aholic excess that marred the later work of Al Dimeola and almost of the stalwarts of the genre. His style is tuneful, unique and, in my world, perfectly accessible in the best sense of the word. In other words, Williams' music is commercial in the best sense of the word.
You make references to Big Jazz labels in your biography. What happened with the jazz labels out in L.A.?
"I would send my music to the labels and they would say this great stuff and we want to release it. Talks about touring and production of other artists even planned out. But then they would ask, "Wo who are the musicians on the record?" Since I composed, recorded, and performed alone using creativity, MIDI and computer technology, I would answer, "Me." They would scratch their heads and say, "Well how did you do that as your music sounds like a live band?" I would say, "Well, I guess I have a gift."
"After realizing I was not joking, they would shy away and the deal never would materialize. It seems that jazz labels couldn't understand that I was able to transform the sound from synthesizers into a living band. It was frustrating for me as I thought they would be very excited about my talents. The same situation happened in Germany and Japan.
"So I quit trying and moved to Asia. I figured I would just compose my music and leave it here for people to discover one day and die an unknown composer. Then the internet music revolution came along and I could release my music to the public via the net. That's when everything changed in my life. I started to feel some hope as people who discovered my music said it was something new and they loved the emotion it gave to them."
This emotion is evident on two of the stand out pieces on the record, "The Center of Life" and "The Story of You." Both these tunes are, like the rest of the CD, cinematic in nature, evoking feeling and mental pictures. But these songs are musical renditions of mini-movies.
"The Center of Life" starts with a murky texture. Lightly pulsing percussion and electric piano roll like water as a trumpet benediction floats on top. The musical river hits a dam and smashes into a driving Miles Davis circa "On the Corner" (1975) grooves. Then it takes another turn into the rolling waters of the intro, but with more intensity with voice answering and dueling with the trumpet. The story of you drives in another way, evoking a long drive, one where you empty your mind of stress and think of the mundane magic of everyday life and memory.
How did you decide on Indonesia? What is it about the culture and people of Bali that you like and makes it a good place for you to work? What about the influence of fundamentalist Islam? How do people view you as an American? Does being black make any difference with people?
"Bali is called the island of the GODS, The people here are very artistic and really value artistic creation. The Island is very beautiful and you can feel the spirits passing through this exotic place. I was told that I was to live here and I would create some of my best music while here.
"At that time I was already living on the island of Java. Bali is mostly a Hindu culture, but Java is Moslem. While living in Java I found the Muslim people to be peaceful and fun. They are like anyone else trying to make it and take care of their families. I never felt odd as American.
"Most of the Western people who live here are happy to be here. The Indonesian people are very kind and think with their heart. There is no discrimination against skin color, religion, or culture. They are beautiful and wonderful people. Religion is practiced very seriously here, but it is not enforced on you."
What opportunities exist there for musicians?
"It is not a place for musicians per say as there are not many places to perform here on Bali. However, it is a special place for creative artists. This Island offers inspirational scenery and complete freedom to focus on your creative ideas. All who visit here become attached to Bali. For me as a music composer, I find the culture and the creative inspiration very strong here. Since I record my music myself, it is a haven for me to record my many visions in my private music studio without interruption from the stressful life style in the west."
What did you love about the music of Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, and Chick Corea?
"The LP titled The Mad Hatter by Chick Corea, I must have listened to that record a thousand times when I was a teenager! I liked how he put music to tell the story of Alice in Wonderland. You play the whole LP and it takes you places. That had a big influence on me. I like to make all my CDs have a central theme or message and try to make all the songs connect and flow.
"With Herbie I like how he mixed funk with jazz and I liked the smooth side of his music. I like the way he made the synthesizer expressive.
"When I was just starting to play the trumpet, I listen to a lot of trumpeters - Clark Terry, Lee Morgan, Art Farmer, Clifford Brown. Then one afternoon and I heard "Autumn Leaves" by Miles Davis. It was the way he played, very cool and smooth, not a lot of technical mastery, but speaking like a voice!
"I like music that is not based on technical precision but based on feeling and mood; using your emotion and musical talent to speak to the listener. That is what I feel that Miles did that was so special as a trumpeter. Also he showed how as an artist you need to experiment, try new things."
How to you approach composing and putting together your music?
"First is the theme or subject I would like to document or bring to light for an audience. Once I have that, I start the ground work. I use MIDI and computers as my tools to create the rhythm section. I like to play the drums in a linear way and do not like to sample or use loops in my works. Every part is played by me on the keyboard. I then add live percussion and other acoustic instruments to bring the balance of the sound into perspective. And, of course, my trumpet which is my main instrument.
"I want each track to be as live and based on the spontaneous feeling of a musician's creative force being added to the song. I take this same approach when I am tracking the piano and strings section and bass parts. It took many years to master the keyboard enough to play all these parts in and give them each a different side of my personality.
"I work with over fifteen synthesizers at any given time and have lots of instruments around my music room. I like to compose in sections. Maybe I feel the end of the song first and that is where I start, I may not work on that song for months then I will hear the rest of it. I like working at night mostly and mixing and editing during the day and sleep of course."