JAZZ NOTES: Alyson Williams more than just singing
Ron Scott | 12/3/2020, midnight
The songbird stylist Alyson Williams was in the middle of recording her album when COVID-19 stamped stop on the world. As time drudged on as though turtles had taken over time technology it was clear the pandemic was not going to end in the very near future.
Williams decided to release the two completed songs “Summer Nights in Harlem” and “The Romance of You,” both written by the executive producer Maurice Lynch; co-producers Williams, Ray Chew and Ajaay Swindell. This song is most apropos for the singer, who was born in New York City and grew up in Harlem. The song is a jaunting Bossa Nova with Williams offering a jazzy sultry sassiness that swings like a late autumn night breeze. A love song that captures memories and the essence of Harlem, with standout solos by Kirk Whalum and Ron Blake on tenor and soprano saxophones (on both songs). Also featured are the recognized musicianship of pianists Christian Sands and keyboardist Ray Chew (musical director for ABC-TV’s “Dancing With The Stars”), Grammy award winning bassist Christian McBride and drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr.
“The Romance of You” shows off her song stylings of icons Nancy Wilson and Shirley Horn. She has a warm distinct delivery like a honey kiss and a haunting timbre that carries throughout and those flowing strings, look out. Musicians featured include pianist and orchestral arrangements/strings (on both songs) Chew, percussionist Ajaay Swindell, guitarist “King” Solomon Hicks, and Greg Sneed on flugel horn. “We didn’t want COVID to stop our entire production so we prayed on it and then put this effort out as a buzz of what’s to come once the CD is completed,” said Williams. “We need happiness today between loss of life, distractions, injustice and disrespect This is happy music that will make us feel better.” Lest we forget that Williams has always been a hell of a singer known to lay down a ballad.
Ever since she became the first R&B vocalist to be signed by CEO Russell Simmons of Def Jam Records (1980s), she has been a shining star. Although her star continues to rise her accolades and proper just dues are yet to find her. Hopefully, her jazz repertoire will catapult her to the forefront of both genres. She is known for her R&B chops but the main influence in her life was jazz sparked by her father Bobby Booker, the celebrated jazz trumpeter and bandleader. “While working on this jazz project, I am not done with R&B. There is gospel and house music coming.”
Another Williams’ project that was about to be held hostage by COVID-19 was “Old Friends: Celebrating the Life of Phyllis Hyman.” The celebration a one-woman show featuring Williams singing her good friend and mentor’s repertoire (along with an all-star band), as well as injecting key points in her life. It was filmed at Manhattan’s Birdland Theater. Due to the pandemic the live show was recorded without live audience and band. Instead it became the duo of keyboardist, composer, arranger and songwriter Nat Adderley, Jr. and Williams. They have worked together so often she named their duo DNA (Definitve Nat and Alyson).
The livestream recently viewed on the National Arts Club’s YouTube channel. At some point Jazzmobile will air excerpts of the show on their website. During a recent telephone interview from her home in Winston Salem, N.C. Williams noted, “I am trying to evoke her music not sound like her.” This special tribute once again pronounces William’s stylistic skills when it comes to song phrasing. This show received rave reviews in the chat room. This celebration of Hyman is only a prerequisite to Williams’ overall goal to perform her show “Old Friends: Alyson Williams Sings Tribute to the Legendary Phyllis Hyman.” The few times she was able to perform the show, she received great accolades. One former record executive, Laverne Perry-Kennedy, who caught her show at Manhattan’s TriAd Room noted “Alyson was Phyllis Hyman.”
“The way she sang with passion in her voice, her class and style drew me in,” said Williams. “I was introduced to her as a fan by her manager Jimmy Lewis, at Russ Brown’s (a former jazz spot and restaurant on the Upper Westside). We quickly became sisters, friends and mentor. She suggested good entertainment lawyers for me, we hung out at each others gigs when time allowed and she even gave me clothes from her vast wardrobe. She helped me so I didn’t have to hop over the same hurdles she did.”
Williams was on the road when the Apollo Theater management called her on June 30, 1995 to ask if she could fill in for Hyman that evening with the Whispers. Their request didn’t mentioned Hyman had committed suicide earlier that afternoon in her Manhattan apartment. Unfortunately, Williams didn’t find out about her good friend until she arrived at her destination later that day.
“I felt this concept was the best way for me to continue the legacy of Phyllis Hyman, to give me closure and spread the music to her fans,” stated Williams. “This show has attached itself to me and I can’t stop until it gets to a place where everybody can see it.” Williams would like to see the performance in art centers, night clubs, major theaters and a run on Broadway. This production is equivalent to the Broadway run of “Emerson Bar & Grill A Day in the Life of Billie Holiday” which eventually had a tragic ending. During my performance I remember how emotional people became says Williams. “I live the news of hearing she passed. I live knowing how she felt happy and sad, the situation of people living with mental illness which is an issue in the Black community. My goal is to partner with a mental health organization to help fight this illness. Manic-depression and bipolar disorder are all part of the emotions she was dealing with alone. We can’t let people continue to fall between the cracks of mental illness. We have to bring this problem out in the open so more people can be helped.”
While Williams continues to negotiate her production she is celebrating the 5th year of “Love Notes with Alyson Williams in the Chill Zone,” her Tuesday (8 p.m.-10 p.m.) radio show on WHCR-FM (90.3). Her interviews cover everyone from politicians to community activists, artists from rap to classical and R&B legend Chaka Khan to jazz group Manhattan Transfer. She is currently broadcasting remotely. This year also marks the 30th anniversary of her hit song “Just Call My Name” and she was inducted into the Soul Music Hall of Fame.
Williams has an umbrella company “A Woman’s Prerogative” that cover her many ventures from producing music, writing plays, concepts for television shows and films. And there is a jewelry line on the way. “You have to have other things going on, you have to brand yourself,” says Williams. “I am above the sky the stratosphere is the limit.”
William’s “Summer Nights In Harlem” and “The Romance of You” is available on Amazon, Spotify, Apple Music and Pandora.