Once upon a time, an instrumental entitled "Classical Gas" was a hit record for the multi-talented Mason Williams. Some 35 years later, the conditions have altered considerably for popular music. Instrumentals are almost never heard on mainstream radio in the early 2000s, unless it is an oldies station playing "Tequila" or, come to think of it, "Classical Gas." Williams is still around, as the title of EP 2003: Music for the Epicurean Harkener proclaims in a title both bold and strange. Since the mainstream music industry seems to have temporarily lost interest in his type of productions, Williams is now putting out his own recordings on the Snookum label. This EP consists of six tracks, runs a bit longer than 20 minutes, and can be best described as timeless musical magic. It certainly has taken time to put together, nonetheless, with recordings from as far back as the early '80s mingling with output from newer sessions, sometimes within the same piece. Observing Williams as a "one-hit wonder" puts things in a perspective that is really not the least bit helpful in terms of understanding his musical vision. The performer doesn't seem to have changed that much over the years, other than maturing and shifting focus toward working as a composer while not totally abandoning his activities as a player. He puts together meticulous and logical compositions in a variety of styles; one of the particular charms is that it is inevitably music that grows slowly on the listener. "Classical Gas" itself only took off after something like half a year of mild airplay. -- it harks back to an era when there was less manic, panicky control of the music industry, when music such as this was given a chance to catch on with the car radio crowd.
Williams also had his hit in an era when there did not seem to be any limits set on what sort of musical instrument might be allowed the spotlight. The '60s may have been electric guitar nirvana, but a hit was just as likely to feature a piccolo trumpet, harpsichord, oboe, sitar, or theremin in the solo spot. On EP 2003, pieces such as "Large DeLuxe" and "Santa Fe Souvenir" feature the accordion playing of Frank Marocco, while other tracks ring brightly with the sounds of steel guitar, whistling, steel drum, flute, and mandolin. The production is flawless, the sound so clear that every single instrument jumps out and establishes star presence with even the slightest sound, not just whatever is in the solo spot. On both "Trade Winds" and "McCall," the snare drum sounds from veteran studio player Hal Blaine deserve special mention, delicious goat cheese served up on a crisp cracker. Williams seems to be deeply in love with music and musical instruments, and the way they can be used to create moods and atmosphere. This is not music that is about boundless exploration of an instrument and this is not a workshop in which the buffing wheel has been disconnected. Everything is so smooth and seamless that it could even turn some types of listeners off, in which case the best advice is to give it another chance since, as previously mentioned, the Williams musical charm builds up slowly. His melodies here are not the sort that immediately worm through the brain, yet upon repeated listening each tune is friendly and familiar, an engaging person you have met briefly but might have forgotten about. The presence of session masters such as Blaine, guitarist and producer Rick Cunha, and fiddler Byron Berline provides a continuum with the Los Angeles studio scene that is part of Williams' root structure, to be sure. While not everyone may need an explanation of the CD's subtitle, one will be provided just in case President George W. Bush is reading. An "epicurean harkener," the latter word a variation on "hearkener," would be someone who derives great pleasure from listening attentively. That would indeed be the audience for Williams, more specifically fans of exotica, lounge music, space age pop, film soundtracks, and the vintage country & western instrumental records created by artists such as guitarist Chet Atkins and pianist Floyd Cramer.