Eavesdropping on Joe Williams : Jazz: The singer, who plays the Irvine Barclay with his trio tonight, says, ‘You have to have a two-way conversation’ with the instruments.


Joe Williams, who came to fame as Count Basie’s vocalist in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, likes to talk about music.

Right now the amiable singer is chatting about the difference between working with a string orchestra--as he does on his latest recording, “Here’s to Life”--and performing with his trio, as he will tonight at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

“In our work, we listen as we perform,” Williams began, using the editorial “we.”

“It’s like a conversation if you do it right,” he said. “With a trio, there’s less to concentrate on, whereas if there are 50 or 100 strings, these are voices that must be listened to. We must communicate with them, and so the listening attention span must be broadened.”


Williams went on about the idea of performance as conversation, focusing on working with his trio, which features the redoubtable pianist Norman Simmons, who’ll be with the singer at the Irvine Barclay.

“You have to have a two-way conversation, between you and the other instruments, as opposed to one dominating,” Williams, 75, said in a phone interview from the Las Vegas home he shares with his wife of 35 years, Jillean.

“And you must have someone supporting what you say, what you sing, and you both have to move out of the way and listen to what the other has to say as well. It’s a matter of having feeling for each other. You know when it’s done right, because as soon as it’s over, you look at each other and smile, because the communication was perfect.”

He takes a moment to talk about his camaraderie with Simmons, whom he’s known for 40 years and with whom he’s been working for close to 20 years.

“He gives me big support, the biggest,” Williams said. “He’s a truly dedicated, genuine musician.”


For “Here’s to Life,” the singer with the luxurious, cavernous baritone worked with a 39-piece orchestra arranged and conducted by the acclaimed Canadian composer-arranger Robert Farnon.


“Oh, man, that was grand, I would say,” Williams said. “It really felt marvelous. That kind of presentation takes the feelings of love and frustration or whatever to another peak, as opposed to down and dirty and bumpy,” as in a blueslike “Cherry Red.”

Williams sings a lyric from that tune:

“Oh, mama, rock me in your big brass bed until my face turns cherry red!”

One senses, even through the telephone line, that Williams is smiling as he sings the phrase.

Such numbers were the stuff around which Williams built his repertoire with Basie. But he’s recorded in many other contexts, even with string sections.

In any case, he says, “people have learned, I think, that when you go and see Joe Williams, it isn’t likely that he will sound like one of his recordings for long. Ever since I left Basie, I’ve been doing something else, something different each show. After all, variety is the spice of life.”

He names a few tunes, some quite obscure. He’s asked if he can remember any well enough to sing them.


“Most times. It’s a happy feeling, I want you to know, when everything falls into place.”

Williams, whose career began in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s with the orchestras of Andy Kirk and Coleman Hawkins, doesn’t hit the road like he used to.

“I take two, three months off,” he said with a laugh. “Then I can go back and hit it real good. But I gotta have that time off. Otherwise, my whole body says, ‘Hold it. This isn’t fun.’ ”

Asked about his association with Basie, Williams is succinct: “We had mutual respect. I recognized him as someone I might learn something from, and, of course, I did. So much.”

* Joe Williams appears tonight at 8 at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. $19 to $28. (714) 854-4646.