The documentary The Wayman Tisdale Story places its priorities in this order: 1) Tisdale’s sunny attitude, 2) his basketball career and 3) his music career. This is understandable since if you were to drop his name at your local water cooler, more people’s thoughts would turn to his high scoring tenure with the Sooners before contemplating his second life as a smooth jazz bassist. But it is strange that music would take a backseat in a DVD that is a companion piece to a compilation of recorded music. You do learn that his father, a preacher, bought guitars for all of his sons when they were young and Wayman was the only one kept up with it. You learn that he flipped a right handed bass upside down (he was a southpaw, after all) and developed a percussive style of playing due to his involvement in church music. You learned that he liked Marcus Miller and asked him for help making his first album. But if you want to know any more about Wayman Tisdale, the musician, you’re better off hunting down the documentary’s interview subjects and asking your own questions.
If Wayman Tisdale will only be remembered as a basketball star, it wasn’t due to lack of effort on his part. He completed eight albums in thirteen years, nine if you count the posthumously released collaboration with Derek “DOA” Allen, The Fonk Record. And these were not vanity projects a la Shaq; Tisdale came into this phase in a fully realized manner. His relationship with music stretched way back before his high school basketball days, so much so that he considered it his first love. He practiced guitar and bass consistently over the years, tending to the urban sounds that live somewhere between funk and smooth jazz. And he was determined not to let anything interrupt his prolific run. Not a full-time gig in the NBA, not numerous team trades, not a broken leg, not cancer, not an amputation. The Wayman Tisdale Story seems more like a tribute to human persistence than a celebration of the multi-talented. The smile never left his face, his good nature never faded, and a bulk of the movie’s tone makes you feel that he’s still alive.
Whether director Brian Schodorf meant it or not, Tisdale’s transition from athlete to musician doesn’t get scrutinized in any way. It just sort of happens. Once in this musical context, the movie just doesn’t delve into the worthwhile questions. What music did he like as a child? Who or what inspired the music he made as an adult? Who were the other guys in his band? What are the backstories to each album? You get none of that. But you can enjoy some super hammy stage interaction between Tisdale and saxophonist David Koz that is, to say the very least, laughable.
The CD itself is a decent sampler if not anything resembling a definitive best-of. Only one song, the ballad “Gabrielle,” makes it from his debut album and his following three albums get ignored completely (even though 1998’s Decisions gets the coveted Allmusic checkmark). Instead, room is made for Toby Keith’s “Cryin’ for Me (Wayman’s Song),” a smooth country jazz farewell ballad that tests the limits of posthumous cornpone’s good taste, should it have any at all. Apart from that, The Wayman Tisdale largely stays focused on his Rendezvous Records output. The most fun parts of the collection come from The Fonk Album featuring George Duke on “Let’s Ride” and Tisdale himself introducing his own band and music complete with radio call letters on “The Introduction” (George Clinton called, he wants to know if you’ve seen the mothership). The tenderer tracks, “It’s Alright,” “Gabrielle” and “Glory Glory” are not as fun and funky, but accurately represent Wayman Tisdale’s unabashed romanticism and how it affected his songwriting. For everything else, there is the creamy middle; Stanley Clarke-on-Valium numbers riding on easy melody like “Rebound,” “Ready to Hang” and “Way Up.”
One previously unreleased song featured on The Wayman Tisdale Story is “Slam Dunk.” It does not detract from nor add to the overall quality of this career overview, but it does cause one to stop and think about how Brian Schodorf and the set’s compilers wanted to tell Tisdale’s story. A slam dunk is what they wanted. Here is the ideal subject for a movie: a large teddy bear of a guy who put Oklahoma basketball on the map, gingerly dipped his toe into the NBA, fostered his own (serious) music career, got up when cancer knocked him down and kept his positive attitude through the whole thing until his dying day. But within the self-containing confines of a 66-minute documentary and a 56-minute CD, corners get cut. And no matter what your opinion may be of basketball, funk, smooth jazz, cancer, limb amputation, Toby Keith or Wayman Tisdale’s genuinely inspiring true story, you’ll agree that The Wayman Tisdale Story isn’t really the slam dunk it was hoping to be.
- Multiple songs MySpace