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Friday, April 10, 2009
Williams discusses 'Moving Forward'

By Jim Wilkie

Former New York Yankees outfielder Bernie Williams hasn't played in the majors since the 2006 playoffs but that doesn't mean he hasn't been busy.

Bernie Williams
Bernie Williams holds an apropos prop April 2 at the opening of the Hard Rock Cafe in Yankee Stadium.

In addition to being home with his wife, Waleska, and raising their three children, Bernie Alexander, 18, Beatriz, 15, and Bianca, 13, Williams played for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic last month and has been focusing on his music career.

The classically trained guitarist's second CD, "Moving Forward," will be released Tuesday and he'll perform in concert April 18 at the Nokia Theatre in New York.

As he was for much of his 16 years with the Yankees, during which the five-time All-Star won four World Series, the soft-spoken Williams was surrounded by a talented team on "Moving Forward," which he co-produced with Loren Harriet.

"I do feel a lot of admiration for the people that do this on a consistent basis because it is a lot of work, man," Williams said. "From the moment that you start choosing the songs, choosing the musicians, making arrangements for all the songs, tracking them. ... And then through the mixing process it is a lot of work. And I definitely went through it with both of my CDs and you know they're like five years apart. But this one I had an opportunity to spend a lot more time and I was a lot more hands-on in the creative process sorting the songs out and recording them and tracking the different musicians making the arrangements and the mixing and the mastering process."

Though Williams, 40, hasn't officially retired from baseball, music is a higher priority now as he promotes his album featuring a variety of musical styles, such as jazz, classical guitar, rock 'n' roll and Latin rhythms.

Williams is not the typical jock who moonlights in a band and thankfully he didn't cop a Billy Bob Thornton attitude when his better-known career was also discussed with The Life in a phone interview last month.

The Life: Obviously your life has changed significantly in the past two years. What does the CD's title "Moving Forward" mean to you?

Williams: Well I think it marks sort of a transitional period between being a baseball player and now embarking into this whole new element for me as far as, not only making the music, but promoting it and playing it in different venues. ... So it just marks sort of a moment in which I [am] sort of hanging them up and just picking up my guitar up and going with it.

The Life: Considering you didn't officially retire from baseball after 2006, can you imagine how tough the past two years would have been if you didn't have music to lean on?

Williams: Yeah, that would have been a lot tougher. I did have a chance to spend a lot more time with my family and I had an opportunity to do a lot of things that I wouldn't have if I was playing baseball. I didn't know what it felt [like to experience] summer ... on the beach somewhere for like the last 20 years because I was just playing all the time. So it was a nice, refreshing change.

Nonetheless the things that you find playing the game of baseball you can't really compare them to anything else. The one thing I found out, as much as I like doing the other things, I ended up missing playing the game of baseball. Missing the competition, the rush of playing in front of 50,000-plus fans on a consistent basis, just the uncertainty of what was going to happen and the challenge to produce every day, day in and day out, to the highest level in the sport is something that you can't really compare, for me, anywhere else.

The Life: Does the competitiveness from baseball translate into music creatively in any way?

Williams: I think that, not that in baseball you didn't compete against yourself, but obviously the competition was more evident against other people. Trying to beat the pitcher, trying to throw somebody out or trying to steal a base, you're competing against the opposition.

In music I've found I'm more competing against myself. Just trying to be a better musician every day. And trying to conquer obstacles ... trying to learn a riff or trying get some skill down quicker, or trying to put a song together. The competition I've found in music, so far, has been just against myself to be a better musician and a better player.

The Life: Can you tell me a little bit about the songs you chose to cover and what they mean to you?

Williams: The first song is a song by Jon Secada, he was a co-writer on the song. The song is called "Just Another Day." ... We found out that the song definitely still has a lot of playing time, even now to this day in adult contemporary radio. And the way it was made before it was kind of a minimalistic kind of way with just a drum machine and maybe a stair piano and Jon did all the voices and the background voices. The whole thing worked because the song has gotten a lot of playing time since the '90s. And we felt that it was time for such a beautiful song to explore the possibilities of making the song with a full band and live drums, live bass and me playing the guitar in the background kind of like Carlos Santana in between his phrases.

We had an opportunity to have, actually, Jon singing the song for us in English and Spanish. And we also were very honored to have the opportunity to work with the Boys and Girls Choir of Harlem Alumni Ensemble, so they did the background voices in English and it became such a fuller version of the song.

The most important thing for me was to [do] justice to such a great song and to have Jon approving it and actually singing on the track. You know that's the biggest compliment that we could have of the song, he approved the song and the song came out great. And I think it's planned to be one of the singles on the album, they're going to try to throw it out there on the adult contemporary genre.

The other song that I chose was an old mambo tune ["Que Rico El Mambo"] from this guy Perez Prado. Very popular song, it's kind of a classic Latin tune from back in the '50s.

For some reason the song got stuck in my mind last summer as I was trying to pick up songs. I wanted to put it out there and I heard different versions of it and I wanted to make it a little bit different so it occurred to me that we could make it in seven instead of eight, you know like a seven-four beat time signature. And it came out pretty much as a Latin jazz kind of feel to it, gave it kind of like a quintet.

We had such great players playing on that song. We had Dave Weckl playing on drums, Abraham Laboriel playing on bass, Giovanni Hidalgo -- one of the premiere conga players -- playing congas on it, Matt Rollings -- a great keyboard player -- playing keyboards on it and we had David Sanchez playing saxophone. And I played sort of like a jazz guitar.

So I tried to put it in more of a Latin jazz sort of ensemble with that song. ... The song is made sort of like a jazz format when you play the head and you sort of play through the changes. So I think we have the saxophone, the keyboard and the guitar taking turns improvising over the changes. And then there's like a mano a mano between the drums and the congas and then we go back to the heads so it's more of a jazz sort of a format in that song, which wasn't, I think, the original. It was more of a straight-up mambo tune, like a dance tune. And I think it's definitely one of the strongest songs in the CD if you're into Latin jazz. I think they're going to try to put it out there in the Latin jazz genre.

And the last song that we covered was obviously "Take Me Out To The Ballgame." And that song I did sort of a complete reharmonizing of the song.

It came about to me one night. I was missing the game a little bit, I was feeling a little nostalgic about it and it was in the middle of the night. I was thinking maybe it was 1:30, 2 in the morning and I just picked up the guitar and playing, noodling and the song started popping in my head. And I started playing the song and I figured what if I just play it differently. And I don't know if it was the mood of the place, you know it was dark, everybody was sleeping and I was feeling a little melancholic about the game that it came out of a sort of an introspective version of it. All acoustic guitar played one way the first time around and then I have a little bit of a string, synthesizer string backing the second time I play it around.

We have the opportunity and the pleasure to have [legendary Yankees public address announcer] Bob Sheppard introducing me as if he was introducing me as I was going to bat in Yankee Stadium. So we have him recording the voice, and I think it was at his house and we sort of put a little reverb on it. It sounds just like he was at Yankee Stadium announcing that I was going to hit and then I just come and play the first couple of notes of the intro and then I go right into the song.

Oh, the other song that I played it was kind of like a bonus track. At Joe Torre's foundation dinner about two years ago we had Bruce Springsteen being the entertainment. And he called me up and I was fortunate to play "Glory Days" with him and his wife [Patty Scialfa]. So they recorded the whole session sort of like a jam session in front of 500 or 1,000 of Joe Torre's closest friends.

And we were able to get the approval from, I guess, Mr. Springsteen's manager and him and we were able to put that as well on the CD as a bonus track. So it has just two guitars and just he and his wife are singing "Glory Days" and I'm just tagging along and sort of jamming and following a little bit. It was a fun night.

So those are the cover songs. Everything else on the CD I composed.

The Life: Was Bob Sheppard's involvement your idea?

Williams: It was certainly not my idea. I think that the people who were involved in making the CD they thought, from Reform Records maybe Chris Hower or maybe Steve Fortunato, I think it probably would have been neat to have Bob Sheppard sort of have that introduction to the song.

Such a great song, you know it was so fitting that because the song was fitting that because the song was celebrating 100 years of being made, I think, this last year. And just to give it that sort of Yankee vibe, to have a person that has been such an icon in Yankee history as far as being the public address announcer and announcing such names as Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle and just to have the opportunity to have him announce me for the time that I was playing there for almost 16 years, they saw that it would be a fitting opportunity to have those two elements combined. I don't know, it just came out really good.

The Life: Of the original songs, which ones are especially significant to you?

Williams: I think all are special in their own way. I did a song called "Lullaby for Beatriz," which is kind of like a funny story. I was in vacation in the offseason maybe five or six years ago and my daughter Beatriz wanted me to teach her how to play the guitar. We were playing around with different chords and we sort of came up with a little song. And then we sort of got together, I said "Well, this is gonna be your song."

And a couple of days later she asked me to play our song, and I completely forgot it. I had like no idea how it went and I felt so bad that I promised her that I was gonna make her a song. ... But I always remember her as just a little kid and putting her to bed and then carrying her around and she was such a great little kid that it took me back. ... When I started making the song it sounded more like a lullaby than anything else. It's so funny because every time she hears it, it just gives her the biggest smile to hear that song, "Ahh, that's my song!"

So, yeah, and on my first CD I made a song for my son. And on this CD I have a song for my daughter. So I've got to still come up with songs for my kids (laughs), which I think it makes a very special and it makes the CD more personal if I get my family involved.

The Life: Especially these past two years you've had more time to spend with them and making that such a special time.

Williams: Yeah, definitely. I've had more time to spend with them and being more involved in their activities, extracurricular activities like basketball and everything else that they have to do. Sports and art and everything else, just being here.

The Life: Your music spans a variety of genres, what were your musical influences while you were growing up and before you began to record your own songs?

Williams: My influences, in the early days I went to this music high school back in the '80s and I graduated in 1986. The music scene down in Puerto Rico in the '80s you had two very distinctive groups, well actually maybe three. But as far as the popular music was concerned there were two very distinctive music groups.

The ones that liked the tropical music, you know as far as merengue, cha cha and salsa. And there were the rockers that liked the foreign music, the rock 'n' roll and blues and all that stuff. And there was some sort of rivalry between the two back then. So there was no bachata, no reggaeton back then so there was not a lot of fusion elements between both genres. Me being a guitar player I had to sort of go into the rocking side of the popular music. So I started listening to Van Halen and Ozzy Osbourne and you know all the rocking people, you know like Chicago and I think it was Boston, Toto and I mean all those '80s bands. And I started getting very excited about their music.

Then when I started playing baseball I started getting a little bit more into jazz and more of the pop music that we were listening to here in the States. And around the time that I started playing in the big leagues I started picking up an electric guitar and that was it, man I just got hooked on blues and rock and jazz.

And actually the fusion movement, I don't know ... we had John Scofield and Mike Stern and Scott Henderson and Chick Corea and all those guys that were playing rocking music with the guitars were distortioned but they were playing jazz licks that were basically very intricate. I listened to a lot of Eric Clapton and B.B. King and all those guys as well, but I think my biggest influences were more on the fusion side.

And given my musical heritage as far as the salsa and the merengue all those rhythms were pretty much instilled in my head ever since I was a kid. So I figure my music has ... I wouldn't call it jazz because I think to be a bona fide jazz player you have to spend a significant amount of time practicing your craft and getting all those repertoires and started swinging and all that stuff. But as far as the music is really jazz influenced from that period of fusion and has a very strong Latin percussion element added to it.

And the music goes from ballads and I have a rocking tune, I have a Latin jazz tune, a fusion tune and [the CD] even has one sort of an orchestral tune that has like orchestral percussion and timpanis and sounds more like a "Lion King" score than anything else. That's actually the title track of the CD "Moving Forward" and that track we had an opportunity to work with [jazz artist and former NBA player] Wayman Tisdale and he was awesome on that track. I see him as one of the first guys who made the transition from being a professional athlete into very successful smooth jazz artist. So it was great for me to have him on the record and play that song with me.

The Life: Certainly your track record and background are quite different than many other athlete-musicians that seem to just dabble in it, so do you ever run into obstacles or people's ideas about jocks putting out music?

Williams: No, I mean so far. Most of the reaction has been positive. I believe there's always gonna be skepticism when you're doing something ... whether it's baseball or whatever it is in the entertainment business and then you try to do something else and it's hard to convince people that you are as serious as you were in what you were doing before.

At the same time it works in my favor because it creates a curiosity in people's minds to at least open the door to the sound. Well, let's see what this guy has, you know. He played baseball for a long time, but let's see how he is as a musician. And I think that my hope is that once they hear the music they will realize that it's a lot more serious than just dabbling on it.

The Life: Among the musicians you've come across have they shown resistance there or were you speaking more about critics and that sort of thing?

Williams: More in the realm of the critics. It depends on what kind of music they're looking for. I think a lot of them will be more partial to the fact that I'm not playing rock or I'm not kind of like out there with tattoos and just jumping up and down. My style of music is a little bit more subtle. But nonetheless still pretty intricate, I think. It has a lot of details. You've got to really listen to the music to really appreciate it. It's the type of music that you want to hear more than one time to appreciate all the details that went into the recording of it.

As far as the musicians are concerned, I think one of the biggest compliments that I've gotten from the CD is that the musicians that are playing, which by the way are like top-notch musicians, they're digging the music. ... They're having fun playing it. They're playing their best, they're playing their hearts out. And to me, they're not going through the motions playing. They have an idea of what I want in the song and they're doing their best to try to make it sound the way that I sort of created it.

And to me that's the biggest compliment, man. They're putting their input in the songs, but they're having a lot of fun making the music as well. And as a musician I can't have any bigger compliment than that because I'm kind of like a rookie coming into the scene, so to speak. And as I was playing baseball it's the same thing, you want to -- you know the fans obviously are important -- but when you're playing with your peers you want to have the respect of your peers. And it holds true in music as well, man, you want to try to prove to them that you belong in the same line with them to the best of your abilities. You haven't been playing for 30, 40 years like most of them have, but at the same time you want to let them know that you're serious about what you're doing.

The Life: You've got the album coming out April 14 and a concert April 18 at the Nokia Theatre, how's the preparation going for those?

Williams: The preparation is going well. I mean we came out with a song list and I think for the most part my responsibility is just to make sure that I have all my parts down. I think most of the musicians that are playing the concert have either played the music before or they have recorded on the CD. So I have no problem thinking that they're going to be able to do their part but I have to be able to do mine playing in a live setting, which is obviously a lot different than recording the music. I have one shot to make it right and you have to be entertaining and the music has to come out right so it's going to be quite a challenge as well.

The Life: How does the anticipation of performing a concert compare with getting ready to play a baseball game?

Bernie Williams
Bernie Williams was the first player to win a Gold Glove, a batting title and a World Series in the same year (1998).

Williams: Well, it's nerve-racking I think. As the days go by you're anticipating what is it going to be like and it could be a little troublesome to think about it but I obviously try to do my work to the best of my abilities, trying to rehearse and trying to make sure my parts are coming out sharp.

I think we're going to have one rehearsal date the day before the concert. And that's where we've got to get everything together. And as far as the order of the songs and everything and see how the format of the concert is going to be. But, yeah, this is kind of like preparing myself for a World Series game. And I have a little bit more time to prepare for it, but nonetheless very exciting and definitely looking forward to the opportunity to do that.

The Life: Are there any plans to tour at all?

Williams: Well, I think we're gonna try to take this with sort of baby steps. The biggest reaction is going to come out from the sales of the CD as far as me being able to promote it.

And then the kickoff concert is going to basically give everybody a clearer idea of the touring possibilities of the music.

There have been some places that have been interested, but nothing [is set]. I think if the kickoff concert comes off OK I think that the summer is going to be pretty busy.

The Life: If all goes well it might be back to a little bit of life back on the road. What does the family think of that?

Williams: I think the one difference is that it's going to be a lot more relaxed. I think playing baseball you have to submit to that grueling 162-game schedule. And from the time you start in spring training you've kind of been branded like cattle, you know you have to be there everyday, working out every day, you have to play the games. ...

Being on a mini-tour or having some touring opportunities will give me a chance to, I guess, plan it beforehand. And at this point in my life I don't know if I'm going to be having a 52-week tour ... going all over the place. But I'm in a position that we can probably pick and choose the ones that are gonna be better. Make a nice schedule according to how I can humanly possibly do. I don't think it's going to be as grueling as playing a 162-game schedule.

The Life: Does your family get as excited about your musician friends as they were about being around ballparks?

Williams: Yeah, I mean, they're doing their own thing. They're being kids like everybody else, and they have their friends and they have their lives different from what I'm doing, which is good. I think they're excited about the fact that I'm still doing what I'm doing and I'm having a lot of fun with it.

But, you know, they're all different. My kids are all different in their own way. They enjoy having their lives, not being so tied to mine. They want to be able to do their own thing as well.

The Life: You got back in the swing with Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, so what's your future as far as baseball?

Williams: I had an opportunity to work out with the Yankees in spring training. And that was a great time, too, man. After being out of the game for two years it really sparked some old feelings back. The old fire.

I knew that it was going for preparation for the World Baseball Classic, so I really tried not to get too excited about it but when I started hitting, you know going through the whole routine at spring training again it just felt, it felt right, it felt like I was missing the game for a while.

Playing in the World Baseball Classic was a great experience as far as representing my country and hanging out with some of the greatest players from Puerto Rico. I wish I could have played a little bit more. But as far as the overall experience it was just something that, you know I had the opportunity to play in the first one and then this one and I really wanted to make an effort to make this happen because the next one is going to be four years from now and I seriously doubt the fact that I'll be playing when they do the next one.

The Life: If that's your last experience playing baseball at the highest level are you OK with that?

Williams: Yeah, I may have to be OK with that. I have something that is working well as far as getting me excited, as far as doing something that I find a lot of pleasure in as well. I don't know, I can never say never. But at the same time I have certainly a commitment to the record label that spent so much time and effort into making this happen as well. And I am certainly planning to honor that commitment as well.