Interview | ‘A product of our environment:’ Ben Williams strives to make music of the moment

Ben Williams is back in his hometown this weekend. The bassist will lead his band, Sound Effect, at Bohemian Caverns. Jati Lindsay/CapitalBop

by Giovanni Russonello
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It’d be one thing to watch an affable, beloved D.C. native head to New York City and start grabbing headlines as a bassist on the national stage, playing with some of the country’s biggest names. Would be another still to see that hometown hero win the world’s foremost jazz accolade: first place in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. But as of this past Tuesday, when his debut album came out, Ben Williams is all of that and then some. He’s a bandleader of bold musical vision, one who pushes jazz into the present day (yes, it could still use a nudge) while insisting on the communal rather than the esoteric. Suffice it to say that Williams, who plays at Bohemian Caverns this weekend, seems to think of music like people: If you turn a cold shoulder on all the new faces (or sounds) that you meet, then that’s a pretty cold heart you’ve got there.

That sensibility reverberates through the liner notes of Williams’ just-released CD, State of Art, which is already perched at No. 1 on the iTunes jazz charts. In the notes, he asserts: “The great American Songbook is an open book to which we should continue to add pages. Don’t get me wrong, I love the old standards, but I have a much more personal connection to music of the 90’s than that of the 40’s. This album is my honest and humble attempt at expressing (musically) what it feels like to be alive in 2011.” What we end up with is a mixed bag of grooving originals (“Home,” “Mr. Dynamite”), a tune dedicated to a hard-bop great but narrated by an emcee (“The Lee Morgan Story”), a Woody Shaw classic infused with go-go rhythms (“Moontrane”) and covers of songs by Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, among others (“Little Susie,” “Part-Time Lover”). The only veritable jazz standard on State of Art also happens to be the only tune on which Williams picks up the electric bass, rather than acoustic.

Ben Williams – “Mr. Dynamite” (from State of Art)
[audio:|titles=Ben Williams – Mr. Dynamite]

It’s no wonder the Revivalist, the taste-making website that evangelizes jazz for the Hip-Hop Generation, recently stamped the album with a perfect 10.0 rating. (Although, I do have to confess: The significance of a number — right down to the decimal! — plopped next to an album title is something I will never understand.) This Friday and Saturday at Bohemian Caverns, Williams plays with his band, Sound Effect, for the first time in D.C. I caught up with the bassist during happy hour at a Japanese restaurant in Midtown Manhattan last Friday. We talked about his rise from the District’s Michigan Park neighborhood to Michigan State University to the Big Apple; here are the highlights of what he had to say.

On go-go’s influence on him as a kid growing up in D.C.:

I think it’s a part of everybody’s life, musician or not. That’s the sound of D.C., it’s unique to D.C. I used to hear it all the time on the radio, used to see some of the bands play. Unfortunately, a lot of the places that have go-go bands weren’t always like the safest environment, so certain places it wasn’t really cool to be hanging out. But the music, I always loved it. And it’s funny: I got more into go-go after I left D.C. I started to check it out really on a musical level, and I started to discover how unique it is. And really no other city that I know of has anything that sounds like that.

And also, Chuck Brown – he is, to a certain extent, a jazz musician. He’s pretty much a jazz guitarist. He had a funk band, but he had jazz chops, and he recorded jazz tunes. So the go-go-jazz connection has already been there. Been there from the beginning.

On his generation of jazz musicians integrating trends from popular music into their own playing:

I think that what we’re doing with the music is no different from what jazz musicians have always done with the music. They’ve always been influenced by popular songs. All the standards that are played, they weren’t written by jazz musicians – they were from musicals, Broadway shows. Those were the songs that people knew – showtunes and Broadway – and they took those melodies. It’s like Coltrane recording “My Favorite Things.” When you watch The Sound of Music, most cats aren’t like, “Man, this shit is hip!” I mean, it’s great music, but before you put it on the gig you gotta do something with it.

And we’re doing the same thing, you know? We’re all a product of our environment, and the environment now is largely hip-hop. Hip-hop is everywhere; it’s pop music now.

On how he decides which pop songs to cover:

Usually when I arrange a tune, even if it’s a popular tune or a standard, ideally they should kind of develop organically. For example, with [Stevie Wonder’s] “Part-Time Lover,” I didn’t sit down and say: “Let me do an arrangement of ‘Part-Time Lover.’” That’s not really how it happened; I wasn’t even listening to it. I was sitting at the piano, just messing around, playing with this figure, and I heard this melody on top of it. I was like, “What is that?” Little piano figure, like, “doo-dum-doom, doo-dum-doom.” And I heard this melody. I was just kind of vibing out and I heard this melody. [Sings “Part-Time Lover” melody] I was like, “What is that? That’s not my tune, it’s too familiar.” I had already kind of slowed it down in my head and transposed it into whatever key I was playing in, so I just took it from there.

And same thing with “Moonlight in Vermont.” Started off with that melody, and it’s like, “Oh that’s ‘Moonlight in Vermont.’” You know, when it comes that easy, it’s a sign that it might turn out [not to be yours].

On the experience of winning the Monk Competition:

It was pretty intense. In those kinds of situations, your nerves could just really kill you. I knew it was very important for me to be relaxed. I was second-to-last out of 15 bass players. So I was basically waiting for like three hours, listening to all of these badass bass players. And I went and stuck my head in the room for a few minutes, when Joe Sanders was playing. He was just, like, killin’. I was like, “Aw, I can’t hear any more!” And I went right back.

But that final round is just so much. Everybody who’s there: Herbie [Hancock], and Dianne Reeves, and McCoy Tyner, and Jimmy Heath, and Wayne Shorter, Nic Payton, Joe Lovano. The judges were Ron Carter, [Christian] McBride, Dave Holland, Charlie Haden, John Pattitucci, Bob Hurst. Imagine them on a panel, sitting together, just looking at you, like: “What you got?”

On the feeling of hearing that he’d won:

It was kind of numb. That moment just felt almost like a dream, almost like it wasn’t really happening. I remember they announced third, second and first. So after they announced the third and it wasn’t me, it was like, “Oh shit! At least got second place.” So I got a little happier, and then they announced second, and I remember just a loud roar. Because I’m at home, so I basically got everybody I know sitting in the audience. And people that probably don’t even know me, it’s like, “It’s the kid from D.C. It’s our hometown kid. He won it all, right in front of us.” So I remember this huge roar coming from the audience. [The Monk Competition is held at the Kennedy Center.]

On the effects of wining the Monk Competition on his life:

I don’t know if it changed anything musically. It’s funny: When something like that happens, some people might think your world changes, you’re riding around in limos. Not exactly. I remember the next day, I had to go to a gig with Stefon Harris. I was on the train the next morning, off to a gig. It’s just like, back to work. [laughs] I would say the biggest change was that I started to get more attention as a bassist, and got some more opportunities to be a bandleader. I had already been writing some tunes, so I had some material. And I had already had some interest in writing, but being able to do some gigs with my band, I really got to explore that. I started doing some gigs around town with the band.

Ben Williams. Jati Lindsay/CapitalBop

On his earliest recollections of playing music:

Actually, the piano was my first instrument. I started playing piano by ear when I was eight, maybe nine. I was just listening to the radio, and I was really into music that time. I was very excited about it, and I would try to be able to learn everything around me. TV, radio, everything I heard I was just trying to [learn it]. I remember one of the first songs I picked out was the piano – now that I’m thinking about it, it’s kind of hard to be like one of the first songs I learned: the theme to Beverly Hills Cop. [Sings the theme]

On what he fell in love with about the bass:

There’s something very wise. Like, to me, the bass sounds like an old woman with a deep voice. You know, an old blues singer who had smoked too much and drank whiskey. It just sounded like it’s been around for a long time.

I think what really turned me on was not just the instrument but that they had a jazz band at my middle school, Hardy Middle School in Georgetown. I think they had just started the band that same year I started playing. So they put me in the jazz band. I was still kind of learning the instrument – but I was learning how to play jazz at the same time. So I felt like my brain was just firing off, constantly. There were so many sounds that I was learning. You feel like a whole new world just opened up.

I was kinda into school. Like any kid, some classes I liked, some classes I didn’t like. I was always a pretty good student. But music, there was something very deep there.

On his first experiences listening to jazz:

I remember the summer after seventh grade, my band teacher – Fred Foss, the saxophonist in D.C. – he was the director of the jazz band when I was there…. I remember Mr. Foss – I still call him Mr. Foss – he gave me a cassette tape. On one side was [Miles Davis’] Kind of Blue, and the other side was a [Charles] Mingus record called Blues and Roots. It was like, “Check this out, man!”

I remember going home and listening over and over. It took me a while to get past “So What” and “Freddie Freeloader,” man [the first two tracks on Kind of Blue]. I just kept listening to them over and over. Literally, every day when I came home the first thing I would do was to put that tape in. I listened to it like a million times.

On his favorite musicians as a kid:

I was a big Michael Jackson fan. Like everybody else on the planet. Prince. James Brown – my mom’s really into James Brown. Motown. Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Betty Wright. I didn’t really hear any jazz until I started playing it in school, and started to check out the records.

On the Sound Effect band that plays on his record:

Well, me and [drummer] Jamire [Williams] had been playing a lot with the Jacky Terrason Trio, and I just love playing with Jamire. I feel like we’re soul mates, man, as soon as we start playing. You ever meet somebody and you feel like you guys just grew up in the same house? When we’re on the road, we have so much in common – musically and culturally. We listen to all the same stuff, so when we play it’s all these inside references rhythmically that we both understand from each other. We’re just lost from, like, the first beat to the last.

And Gerald Clayton, he’s one of my favorite piano players. He’s so musical. What I like about Gerald so much is, he always listens. And you can hear that, because in addition to being a great soloist, he’s a great accompanist. Even when he’s soloing he’s still listening – which a lot of cats don’t really get. They think when you’re soloing, it’s just output: “Support me.” But Gerald’s ears are wide open the whole time…. He leaves space so he can hear what’s going on.

I just love [guitarist Matt Stevens’] playing. The first time I heard him, he was playing with Christian Scott. And I just love his energy. There’s just a lot of energy…. He doesn’t waste any notes, man. He really sings every single note that he plays, and tries to make every note mean something.

[Saxophonist] Jaleel [Shaw], he’s just soulful. And every time he plays, I’ve never done a gig with Jaleel once when he doesn’t play like it’s the last time he might ever play. So it’s just so much fire in his tone and sound.

And the thing I like about [saxophonist] Marcus [Strickland] is his rhythm. He has such a unique rhythmic approach. I listen to him, and I feel like rhythm is more important than his notes – he’s making rhythmic statements, and he’s not just stringing together notes that don’t mean anything. That’s such a saxophone thing to do – just play notes. But Marcus sounds like a drummer when he plays saxophone. His twin brother’s a drummer, so that might have something to do with it.

On the influence of playing in Marcus Strickland’s bands, as well as having Strickland in his own:

I think we have a similar approach to our repertoire. On the trio album he did, Idiosyncrasies, it’s basically like the same concept that I had for this album – just addressing some modern compositions and some modern composers. He did a Björk tune, a Stevie tune, José Gonzales.

On his own most eclectic favorites, of late:

Man, I’ve been checking out some José Feliciano. Puerto Rican singer – you know a couple of his songs. “Feliz Navidad” … I’ve been checking out a lot of Beatles. Mid-to-late. I’d say the White Album is probably my favorite Beatles album. And Abbey Road is classic.

On how he came up with the song name “Mr. Dynamite:”

Mr. Dynamite is one of James Brown’s nicknames. You know, they would announce him and his hype man would say all his nicknames: “Coming to the stage, the godfather of soul, the hardest-working man in show biz, Mr. Dynamite, James Brown!” That tune was kind of a tribute to him.

On what he wanted to capture about Brown with the tune:

Just the funky James Brown funkiness!

Ben Williams plays at Bohemian Caverns on Friday and Saturday with an altered iteration of Sound Effect, featuring Marcus Strickland on saxophone, Christian Sands on piano, Gilad Hekselman on guitar and John Davis on drums. Tickets are $18 in advance and $22 at the door. More info is available here.



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