Sunday, March 18, 2012

Stu Williamson: A Trumpet Artist

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

A close friend and Jazz buff asked me recently: “When are you going to do a profile on Stu Williamson?”

What a great idea!

But where to begin?

There is hardly anything written about Stu Williamson in the Jazz literature.

After playing a significant role in the 1950s with Stan Kenton’s Orchestra, Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse CafĂ© All-Stars, drummer Shelly Manne’s Quintet and vibraphonist Terry Gibbs’s Dream Band, Stu Williamson seemingly disappeared from the Jazz scene.

During this time, Stu had also recorded with Woody Herman, the Mel Lewis-Pepper Adams Quintet, alto saxophonist Lennie Niehaus’ various groups and pianist Elmo Hope’s quintet, yet, the extent of most of the evaluations about him seem to begin and end in one word – “underrated.”

This about a guy whom Shelly Manne was described as: “A wonderful trumpeter and valve trombonist and an excellent all-round musician. He reads well; he has good time; and a good sound.”

We should all be so lucky!

I mean, what else could a musician put on offer?

I heard Stu play in performance on numerous occasions and he always gassed me.

He had a beautiful, rich, round tone, the ability to create solos that were melodic and full of invention, and enough power and clarity of sound to even play lead in a big band trumpet section every so often [not something that is very common for the trumpet player who holds down the solo chair as Stu often did].

His stint as a member of Shelly Manne & His Men [1954-58] was one of Stu’s more enduing associations. Thankfully his work with Shelly’s group is reflected on three albums for Contemporary Records, all of which have been reissued as CD’s on Original Jazz Classics: [1] Swinging Sounds – Shelly Manne and His Men, Vol. 4 [OJCCD-267-2], [2] Swinging Sounds – Shelly Manne and His Men, Vol. 5 [OJCCD-320-2] and [3] The Gambit: Shelly Manne and His Men, Vol. 7 [OJCCD-1007-2].  

There is also a great compilation of Stu’s recordings that were made under his own name for the Bethlehem label which Fresh Sound has reissued on CD as Stu Williamson Plays [FSR-CD 116].

The title of the Fresh Sound disc says it all: Stu Williamson does indeed – play! – and in such a variety of compositional contexts on these recordings that one truly gains the opportunity to hear and to appreciate his gifts as a trumpeter and valve trombonist.

And what a great series of original compositions by Bill Holman, Johnny Mandel, by his Shelly bandmates – alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano and pianist Russ Freeman – and by legendary guys like Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins.

Stu never “mails it in” [i.e.: gets lazy]. He’s always working; always playing with a ringing clear tone; always getting the dynamics, just right.  Like the true professional that he was, Williamson paid attention to the smallest detail when playing a composition and does justice to all of them. His consistency of interpretation was remarkable as were his solos with their masterful phrasing and interesting ideas.

It seems that Stu gravitated to the studios in the 1960s along with many other Jazz musicians and ultimately dropped out of music by the end of that decade.

Ours is not to speculate, but whatever the reasons for Stu’s departure from music may have been, I am certainly pleased that he left such a bountiful recorded legacy of his work from the 1950s.

I’ll bet my Jazz buddy is, too.