Williams started singing the blues repertoire made famous in the Basie band by the portly, gravelly-voiced Jimmy Rushing, but he sang "Every Day I Have the Blues" and "In the Evening" with his own hip, finger-snapping verve. Soon he had his own hits, "OK, All Right" among them. He had then, and has now, a big, rich, cheery voice -- he never really sounds like he has the blues -- and his own devices. He'll begin a phrase quietly, dip down dramatically, letting his low range expand, and then, while improvising, warble, flutter, or simply hold a high note like a saxophonist on a roll. Although known for his blues and clipped, midtempo swingers, people should pay attention to ballads such as "When I Fall in Love" and "I Didn't Know About You," on the recent Here's to Life. Williams' timing is subtle and varied: On the gentle "If I Had You," he begins, "I could show the world," holding the first syllable and leaving space after "world." When the musical phrase is repeated, he glides through the line as if he hadn't worried it the first time. His rhythm holds the song together; he never sounds mannered.
Williams may have grown up in the bebop era, but he seems to have learned phrasing from the great swing tenor saxophonists, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and Lester Young. A veteran who still performs his Basie hits with the exuberance that propelled him 40 years ago, Joe Williams is simply one of the greatest jazz singers alive.
-- Michael Ullman
Joe Williams performs Tuesday through Saturday, March 24-28, at 8 and 10 p.m. at Yoshi's, 510 W. Embarcadero, Oakland. Tickets are $18-22; call (510) 238-9200.