Davey Williams was an adventurous guitarist who kept one foot in the blues while stepping off the edge.
What is it about the blues that leads guitarists to innovate? Take Don VanVliet, aka Captain Beefheart, for example. His love and respect for the blues led to uniquely inspiring songs, often with outrageous slide playing.
Alabama-based guitarist Davey Williams is another example of an unconventional guitarist who got his start studying the blues. Sadly, he succumbed to cancer this week in Birmingham, Alabama, at the age of 67.
As a young player, Williams cut his teeth working in a variety of rock, soul, and blues bands. But it was from his studies with legendary guitarist Johnny Shines—a Blues Hall of Famer who played with Robert Johnson, recorded for Chess Records, and toured with Willie Dixon—that he gained a firm foundation in rootsy playing.
What Davey Williams ultimately became known for was his off-kilter style in the free improvisation scene beginning in mid ’70s—a time when musicians such as John Zorn and Eugene Chadbourne were making their mark on New York City’s Downtown Scene, and Henry Kaiser and the ROVA Saxophone Quartet were doing pioneering work in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Along with violist Ladonna Smith, his partner at the time, Williams dug into unorthodox playing techniques, and his use of everyday objects (wind-up toys, baseball mitts, etc.) helped him extended the range of his instrument. The two musicians were also highly influenced by the Surrealists and other early 20th-century art forms, which helped infuse their music with a sense of absurdity. A string of LP releases on their Trans Museq label helped them gain international recognition in those early years.
Although their work was uncompromising in its forward-looking view of improvisation, it was laced with humor and collegiality, rather than being didactic and exclusionary. To them, non-idiomatic improv was a form of community interaction, and they often referred to this style of playing as “back-porch music,” as in “this is what people do when they make music for themselves.”
Among the most commercially visible bands Davey Williams played in was Curlew, saxophonist George Cartwright’s prog-ish jazz group that toured and recorded extensively in the ’80s and included the late cellist Tom Cora and NY-based guitarist Chris Cochrane. Williams also worked with other Southern outsider-geniuses, such as Col. Bruce Hampton and the Shaking Ray Levis, as well as artists such as Derek Bailey, John Zorn, and Andrea Centazzo.
Davey Williams’ book, Solo Gig: Essential Curiosities In Musical Free Improvisation, is an inspiring collection of his thoughts on music, no matter what genres you prefer. It’s a fun read and I highly recommend it.
To give you a sense of the breadth of Davey Williams’ career, check out these video clips.