Sophomore release from Thelonious Monk contest winner demonstrates growth, seasoning
By David Sands
April 22, 2015
When it comes to young jazz talent, Ben Williams is a name that’s attracted a lot of buzz over the past few years. The 30-year-old bass player, bandleader and composer has been winning awards and critical acclaim for bringing a contemporary edge to the improvisational art form. So the fact that he’s releasing a new album, Coming of Age, this month with Concord Records, is something of which jazz aficionados should take note.
A graduate of the Juilliard School and Michigan State’s music program, Williams made his first big splash in 2009, when he took home top honors in the Thelonious Monk International Bass Competition. Since then he’s continued to make waves in the jazz world, touring and recording with Pat Metheny’s Unity Band, which won him a Grammy in 2012, and brewing up a distinctive blend of jazz, hip-hop and R&B with his band Sound Effect.
The D.C. native’s first album, State of Art, was released in 2011. Williams’ hard work got him named iTunes Breakthrough Artist for jazz that year, and brought him a DownBeat Magazine Critics Poll Rising Star Award for Bass in 2013.
Lately he’s been keeping himself busy with a host of impressive side projects with artists like Chaka Khan, Wynton Marsalis, Dee Bridgewater and Roy Hargrove.
FBPO’s Jon Liebman recently got in touch with the rising young jazz bassist to get the lowdown on his new album, his approach to making music and an upcoming appearance in a new movie about Miles Davis.
Coming of Age, Williams’ sophomore effort is backed by his quintet Sound Effect, but features a slightly different lineup than his debut album. Guitarist Matt Stevens and saxophonist Marcus Strickland are back, but this time around, John Davis is working drums and Christian Sands is holding down the eighty-eights.
Thematically, Coming of Age explores the bandleader’s growth as an artist and as a man. Its 11 tracks reflect Williams’ internal translation of what’s happening in the world around him.
“A lot of has happened in my life in the last four years since the first record has come out,” he tells Liebman, noting his world tours with Metheny and his travels with his own band.
Christian McBride, who’s also played bass with Metheny, introduced the two of them while Williams was still studying at Juilliard. The young bassist made such an impression on the famous bandleader that he was allowed to substitute for McBride at gigs and later invited to join the Unity Band. Williams, in turn, considers Metheny to be one of the great contemporary composers and cites him as a major influence on his own composition and arrangement.
Beyond all the excitement of his last few years, William also brings a great deal of introspection to his new release.
“I’m kind of learning. Just getting under the layers of what I see around me,” he continues. “Noticing why certain things are the way they are. And should they be like this? And what should be done to change things.”
These musical ruminations encompass a wide range of subjects, including politics and racial relations. The song, “Voice of Freedom,” for example, is dedicated to Nelson Mandela and delves into the significance of the great South African revolutionary’s life. It’s a collaboration between Williams and R&B singer-songwriter Goapele. The two connected after Williams covered her song “Things Don’t Exist” on State of Art, which resulted in jam sessions and eventually a track. “The song came out of one of those sessions,” Williams says. “She was in New York for a memorial for Nelson Mandela at the time, so his spirit was in the air.”
Coming of Age also features the talents of trumpeter Christian Scott, vibraphonist Stefon Harris and M.C. and vocalist W. Ellington Felton, a friend of Williams’ from the D.C. urban music scene, who happens to be the son of jazz great Hilton C. Felton.
Musically, the new album is a bit of departure from the first. Although he still plays the upright, Williams uses the electric bass more prominently here. “I’ve been getting my chops better on the electric,” he says. “I really love the instrument and am trying to explore a little more in the context of my groove.”
There’s also fewer covers. Lianne La Havas’ “Lost & Found” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are the only non-originals, the latter a rather intriguing bass solo by Williams. “I can actually play [the] entire song [“Smells Like Teen Spirit”] with a bass groove and a melody,” he says. “I really didn’t plan to put it on the record. I was kind of just messing around and they were like, ‘Lets record that.’ I did one or two takes. It’s very raw.”
As for the rest of the songs, Williams developed them incrementally over the last few years.
“When I’m composing, I almost think of each song as a character,” he says. “I try to give each song an identity, a unique sound.”
“You can’t really think that far ahead about putting together a cohesive album,” he adds. “When you get the inspiration to write, you just do it. And then you have to put it all together at the end.”
Coming of Age, however, isn’t the only exciting project for Williams these days. He also makes a cameo as bassist Percy Heath in Don Cheadle’s upcoming Miles Davis biopic, Miles Ahead. The music that will appear in the film isn’t his own, though; he’s just playing along with a recorded Davis track. “I’m in a scene playing with Miles Davis. Very short scene,” Williams says. “We shot this last summer. I’ve heard [it’s coming out] early next year. I can’t wait to see it.”
As for the future, Williams wouldn’t comment on any specific endeavors, but hints he’s got something more in store for fans. “I have some side projects and some special projects planned,” he says. “I’m basically envisioning this band, Sound Effect, as sort of like the centerpiece, but having side projects, ongoing side projects.”
“[I’m] in a very creative space,” he adds. “The engine is definitely turning.”
Title: Coming of Age
Artist: Ben Williams
Label: Concord Music Group
Release date: April 21, 2015
Exclusive FBPO interview with Ben
FBPO review of Ben’s first album, State of Art
State of Art is available here