Primary Instrument: Guitar
Any baseball fan knows how Bernie Williams plays. The superstar New York Yankees center fielder has consistently flashed grace, passion, disciplined focus and a remarkably fluid sense of rhythm in feats both at the plate and in the field that have made him truly the heir in his role to no less than Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.
Now music fans will know the same qualities. “The Journey Within,” Williams’ debut album, spotlights his impressive gifts as a guitarist and composer. Due July 15 from renowned GRP Records, it’s a set of shimmering instrumentals • seven original Williams compositions plus versions of Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes,” Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” and Brazilian legend Baden Powell’s “Samba Novo.”
The music taps his long love of salsa and blues as well as the classical training he received as a teen at the Escuela Libre de Musica High in his native San Juan, Puerto Rico, at the same time that he was drawing the attention of major league scouts as a local baseball sensation. The album, produced by Loren Harriet, spotlights the guitarist’s keen sense of melody as well as his vibrant lead playing, with sterling support from such star guests as Panamanian salsa giant Ruben Blades, jazz banjo master Bela Fleck and Puerto Rican salsa legend Gilberto Santa Rosa, as well as such top support players as bassist Leland Sklar and drummer Kenny Aronoff. Also making an appearance is Hiram Williams, Bernie’s brother, an accomplished cellist. The colorful cover portrait was painted by famed sports impressionist Leroy Neiman.
And giving the project an enthusiastic endorsement is no less than one of music’s Babe Ruth’s • Sir Paul McCartney, who became a Yankees fan when he attended his first baseball game ever in 2001, the Yankees against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the World Series, and was told of Williams’ musical abilities.
“ When I heard this CD, I was blown away by his talent,” says the former Beatle. “Go Bernie, it’s a home run!” In fact, McCartney was so impressed that he recently signed Williams to a publishing deal with his company, one of the largest and most prestigious music publishing firms in the world. While few young athletes have either the inclination or time to pursue serious study of music, Williams credits his musical side for playing an important part in his baseball success.
“ Music gives you rhythm, makes things flow, a lot of things you can utilize in baseball having a musical mind,” he says. “You have coordination, the rhythm, timing. There’s nothing better than having everything flowing in the game, and musically speaking, you can compare it to being in the zone, everything flowing, like it’s effortless. And it happens in both fields.” In fact, when he’s on the field, he’s often got a tune in his head.
“ Most of the time they might be bluesy tunes because I’m in some sort of a slump,” he jokes. “I think about musical ideas all the time. They’re always popping into my head. Every major event that would happen in my life I would try to create a melody, a song that would make me think about that moment.”
He’s not talking about baseball moments, though he has plenty of note, including four World Series titles, five American League championships, four All Star game selections, a career batting average of .308 (including the 1998 American League batting title) and four Gold Gloves.
Rather, music is something he uses to express more personal feelings.
“ Almost all the songs on the CD are from my experiences, things with my wife, my son and my father, things like that,” he says. “I think it’s a very powerful form for me to express my feelings, more than I could express by words. Everyone that knows me knows I don’t really talk that much.”
This is most prominent in three songs: “Para Don Berna” was written for his father, who passed away in May of 2001. “I don’t think I’ll ever have closure on that,” he says. “But it was a good way to express all that I was feeling at the time and a way to say thanks for all he had meant to me in my life.”
With “Bernie Jr.” he created a musical portrait of his 12-year-old son. “I tried to make it sound like there was duality in the structure, because when he was a little kid he was like that,” Williams says. “He could be a fireball and have this passionate view to life, and at the same time he could be such a loving and caring kid. Actually that defines his personality now, too. It really touched me in a special way to see that he had developed and was learning at such a young age. He inspired me to write about the opposite sides of his personality. Maybe I’ll have to write another song for his teenage years!”
And “Just Because” is a love letter to his wife. “In the melody line I sort of raise the tone three times, but each time I do it differently,” he says. “It’s saying, ‘Thank you for being who you are,’ and then next time I say it on a different tone and try to pick something else to say about her. Then it goes into the bridge, and then back to the beginning and the solo with a celebration tone, really saying, ‘Thanks, and I love you,’ and all the feelings are crammed up into one big structure at the end.”
Other pieces show his humorous side (“Stranded on the Bridge” and the 007/martial arts joint tribute “Enter the Bond”) and introspection (“Desvelado,” which means sleepless). And then there’s the opening track, “La Salsa En Mi,” which sets the album’s tone as an homage to his homeland.
“ That’s a tribute to my home town,” he says. “I grew up listening to salsa, that’s the main rhythm we have. With all the musical influences I have, I wanted to make that tune more of a celebration or tribute to the way I see salsa. The title means “The Salsa in Me,” but it can also be interpreted as “The Salsa in E” • the song is in the key of E, and it’s like do-re-mi, the musical note.”
But salsa is just one style of music that runs in Williams’ blood.
“ When I was in school I was more into the classical guys,” he says. “We listened to Bach and Mozart, Haydn, Scarlatti, Vivaldi. And a few years after I graduated from high school I picked up an electric guitar in New York and got hooked, astounded the way I could change the sound with pedals and all that. Then I got into the blues and started listening to Muddy Waters, the Kings • B.B., Albert and them, Eric Clapton, Robben Ford. Then I was introduced to jazz by way of the blues, listening to the big guys, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker. As far as pure guitar people I listen to a lot, it’s been Robben Ford, Pat Metheney, George Benson, Alan Holdsworth, Mike Stern, Scott Henderson, people like that. They’re not afraid to try different things. I always want to keep my mind challenged with the music I listen to.”