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SmoothViews.com says — Pick up any CD that had a significant impact in the world of contemporary jazz. Chances are you will see Larry Williams’ name somewhere in the credits as a musician, producer, arranger, or composer. Now dig through your best pop albums. The ones that are keepers, not just passing fads or flashes in the pan. His name will probably show up on those liner notes too. Has anyone done as much big work without becoming a big name? Has anyone played on a larger collection of important recordings?
If you’ve seen Al Jarreau in concert you’ve probably seen him at work since he has been a part of Jarreau’s band for long periods of time over the last 30 years. If you saw the film "Dreamgirls," you heard him playing sax and, this is big, he played on the albums that propelled Michael Jackson into superstardom.
He first got attention as a member of Seawind, one of the groundbreaking contemporary jazz bands that emerged during the mid seventies, the genre’s formative years. Since then his career in the contemporary jazz world has paralleled the evolution of the music and his versatility has made him one of the most in-demand session musicians on the scene.
Williams grew up in Kansas City. His dad played sax and got him started on clarinet when he was eight. As it is with most of my favorite musicians, there was a Pat Metheny connection. He had the same teacher as Metheny and he played with Metheny’s brother Mike in the Kansas City Youth Symphony.
He headed for college in New Mexico but was encouraged to transfer to a better music program at Indiana University. While he was there he met Jerry Hey, who would also become a member of Seawind and the leader of a horn section that has been featured on thousands of recordings. His original specialty was woodwinds but he realized he would have a lot more opportunities to work if he became really good on multiple instruments and began to also focus on keyboards.
He and Hey got hired in the orchestras that were backing some of the middle 20th century’s biggest names – Glenn Campbell, Henry Mancini, Johnny Mathis and others. This didn’t go over well with some of their professors who had a more purist perspective so when Williams, Hey, and fellow student Kim Hutchcroft were offered a gig in Hawaii they jumped at the chance and left school behind.
Bassist Ken Wild, who was already deeply into jazz, joined the band and invited his friend Bob Wilson to leave Arizona and come play drums with them. They heard a singer named Pauline one night and invited her to be their vocalist. She eventually married Bob Wilson. Guitarist Bud Nuanez filled out the lineup. The band that would be Seawind (then named “Oz”) was playing pop songs in clubs but listening to a lot of the new contemporary jazz and fusion albums. It wasn’t the material that would get them gigs in clubs, and record companies were not sure how to market this music to a mass audience, so they were hesitant to seek it out — but that’s the direction they wanted to move toward.
After Harvey Mason saw them he got them to move to Los Angeles and helped set them up with a regular gig at the legendary Baked Potato. They were soon signed to CTI records and released the first of their four albums.
Quincy Jones heard them and started using the horn section on some of his projects. A session with the Brothers Johnson led to more work including Jones’ smash album The Dude and the Michael Jackson sessions that Jones produced. Lee Ritenour saw them and introduced them to Dave Grusin who hired Williams for movie work and and session work. This lead to his appearance on most of the albums that came out during GRP’s heyday. He played with Grusin, Ritenour, Larry Carlton, Dianne Schurr and others. Tommy LiPuma produced one of Seawind’s albums and brought Williams in to play on some of the exciting artists Warner Brothers was signing like George Benson, Michael Franks, Joni Mitchell, David Sanborn, The Yellowjackets, George Duke, The Manhattan Transfer, and Al Jarreau.
He was in demand as a contemporary jazz session musician and if you are into mostly this music those are the liner notes where his name will jump out at you. He has said that breaking down boundaries in music and appreciating it without categorization is important to him and he has lived by that mantra. He has played with an all encompassing who’s who list of artists – Boz Scaggs, Whitney Houston, Bonnie Raitt, Ray Charles, Stevie Nicks, Jefferson Starship, Kenny Loggins, Amy Grant, Barbara Streisand, BB King, Vanessa Carlton, Was Not Was,Toto, Rod Stewart, BB King, Earth Wind and Fire, and even Pink Floyd. You still hear him on adult contemporary radio playing sax on Big Mountain’s “Baby I Love Your Way” and Go West’s “What You Won’t Do For Love.” He also worked with Christina Aguilera on her Christmas Special and a Grammy Awards appearance and played sax and flute on Michael Buble’s Call Me Irresponsible.
Recently he has been doing a lot of work with Jarreau. He has been in Jarreau’s touring band on and off for over 30 years and continually since 2002. He co-produced, arranged, and played keyboards on the George Benson/Al Jarreau collaboration Givin’ It Up, produced and arranged Jarreau’s Christmas album, and is working with him on a new album that should take them into the studio late this year or early next year.
Through all of this he has never sought fame. He says that he likes playing with other musicians and has no desire to take center stage and be the star. He has been able to fulfill one long-time wish, a wish he shares with a lot of us who cut our teeth playing bands like Seawind on college radio stations back when this music was called “fusion.” Seawind has recorded and released a reunion album, 29 years after their last album delivered a top 10 hit and the band broke up to pursue lucrative careers doing session work. The original band members came together to record new material and revisit some of their classic songs like “Follow Your Road” and “He Loves You,” which was recently a hit for the smooth jazz group Paprika Soul. Jarreau joined them on the new version of “He Loves You,” and the band is in fine form. The album is available on their website: www.seawindjazz.com. You can also hear songs from his solo album, The Beautiful Struggle, which is more of a straight-ahead jazz project, and some Seawind tracks on his MySpace page.
And, of course, if you go to an Al Jarreau concert he will be the keyboard player who can play a chord that will send goosebumps all the way to the cheap seats upstairs.
By Shannon West • Reprinted by kind permission of SmoothViews.com