Claude "Fiddler" Williams
I first heard of Claude Williams nearly 20 years ago, when I saw him performing at a festival in Washington, D.C. He was an old man then, so I was really surprised when this new CD, Swingin' The Blues, was released by Rounder subsidiary Bullseye Blues & Jazz. Williams, now 91 years old, first recorded in 1929 as a member of Andy Kirk's 12 Clouds of Joy, and later was a member of the original Count Basie band. He also toured and recorded with fellow Oklahoman Jay McShann.
For this session, Bullseye teamed Williams with some of the finest jazz players around, including Keter Betts, Joe Cohn, Jimmy Lovelace, and Bobby Watson. But the real stroke of genius was in bringing in the New Orleans piano player Henry Butler, who recorded his own marvelous CD for Bullseye not long ago.
While I'm sure that Williams' violin playing is not as crisp and vibrant as in his younger years, he still shows his virtuosity on the instrument. His sound is reminiscent of the great Stephane Grappelli, but with a bluesier edge. His instrumental work is especially exquisite on a beautiful version of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow," as he re-invents this well-worn classic. Butler both begins and ends the number with a superb piano interlude. You'll swear you're not in Kansas any more when listening to this fine instrumental. Williams also burns up the strings on the Ellington classic "I'm Just a Lucky So and So."
The only vocal number on Swingin' The Blues is the classic "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good To You," leaving the listener wanting to hear more of Williams' rich vocals.
Cohn's tasteful jazzy guitar work steps to the front on a couple of numbers, "Things Ain't What They Used To Be" and "A Smooth One."
Alto saxophonist Watson's best moments come on the slow number "These Foolish Things" ... very pleasant horn work.
This national treasure has been recorded far too infrequently during a career spanning more than 70 years. Blues and jazz fans alike will want to add this rare Claude Williams recording to their collections.
--- Bill Mitchell
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