Ben Williams: Rising star bassist mixes classic and new sounds



Bandleader and bassist, Ben Williams is on his way to the Dakota on Sept 4 and 5 with the Pat Metheny Unity Band. He’s also well on his way to carving out a beautiful career.

He won the 2009 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition for double bass and is currently a Concord Records recording artist. His first album as a bandleader is State of Art, released in June 2011.

Below is a phone interview with Williams (BW).


MSR: State of Art is intriguing. You have good taste. There’s an originality and a pioneering way about how you pulled your album together. What were you hoping to convey to listeners?

BW: I wanted to make an album that was exactly like you said, creative and an overall good listening experience. The band that I have on the record…they are some of the best young players on the scene. I’ve been working with them for the past year. And we have such a great chemistry playing together. I really wanted to capture that.

I’m really into all different kinds of music. Everything is fair game for me as far as repertoire, as long as it works. My thing is…it’s not really the notes; it’s what you do with it. You can almost make anything work as long as you make sense of it and you’re just honest with the whole process. It really comes to the sincerity.

MSR: I’m a huge fan of Stefon Harris and Black Out. And you’ve played with the band. So how has his band-leading style influenced the way you work with your band?

BW: Very much so. We are in the similar vein…adding new repertoire to the book of standards that has accumulated over years and years… A few will think of standards [as] something that is old. But at one point all these tunes these guys were playing were popular songs. You know when John Coltrane played “My Favorite Things” and Miles played “Someday My Prince Will Come,” these are songs that were on the air. They were popular songs.

Stefon is very conscious about original music, which is of course new. Even with the material he used to cover, it was written by recent composers. Like music from his contemporaries, music from modern-day pop and R&B artists — Sting or whoever.

The way he operates his band is very in the moment. Very loose. We kind of jump around stylistically… It’s kind of all over the place. But it doesn’t sound contrived like we’re trying to do everything. All the guys in the bands are well-versed in so many different styles. And they have backgrounds in different genres and can pull from all those different influences and make it work in a way that’s cohesive. I definitely wanted a band that operated that way.

MSR: Talk a little about your band, which is fantastic. I’m familiar with Clayton, Strickland and Jamire Williams. It was great to hear them play together with you on the new CD, creating something new.

BW: It’s very important for our generation. There’s never just one person that’s creating the sound of their generation. We all have to do it collectively.

MSR: You’re a part of what’s being called the new jazz guard. What are your thoughts on the music now and how you plan to help move it forward?

BW: It’s funny. We don’t really talk about it. It just kind of happens naturally. I don’t think any of the guys talk about it. We’re all young guys just being honest with the music. We’re new guys. It’s a new time. Its 2012, so it’s no way possible we could sound like guys that were playing in the ’60s because it’s a whole different environment.

MSR: Do you have an idea collectively from your band’s perspective — in just talking with them — what’s your interpretation of what’s going on right now and how would you like things to go, if it’s not going the way that you see that it should?

BW: I don’t think any of those guys sit down and talk about the future of music. They just play. What comes out is just a reflection of all our experiences growing up, wherever we grew up. Music we listened to growing up and the kind of music we listen to now. It’s a lot more subconscious than it is a conscious effort to create something new or fresh. It just happens.

MSR: What led you to playing in Pat Metheny’s Unity Band, and how long have you been with the group?

BW: That particular band was put together this year. We went into the studio in February and recorded the album. We started touring back in June.

Pat first heard me when I was a student at Julliard. It was my first concert of my first semester there. Christian McBride was the artist in resident for a few days, and we did a concert with an ensemble playing some arrangements of his music. He invited Pat to come to the concert. He said, “Pat why don’t you check out this student, namely this kid Ben Williams? He’s on bass, and I think you’ll like him.” And Pat came to the concert.

I didn’t even get to meet him that night. But they told us he was there. One of my teachers told me he was checking me out and asking about me. I was like, ah man, that’s amazing.

A few years went by before we actually got a chance to play together. I did a couple gigs with the Pat Metheny trio. That was last year when I first got to play with Pat. He called me last summer and told me about this band he was putting together with Antonio [Sanchez] and Chris Potter and asked me if I was down. That was probably the quickest yes that ever came out of my mouth.

MSR: What’s next? Do you have a new album in the works?

BW: I’m pulling together the repertoire for the second album now. I have a string of dates in the fall and in the spring. So, I’m definitely going to need to try and meet up with the band and get a vibe of what’s going on. Then at some point after that we’ll go into the studio.

I’m not trying to rush the process. I feel like I set a pretty good precedence for my first album. I’m very conscious about making a very good album of good music. I definitely want to keep that going. I want the next one to be even more special.

I actually have a side project that I’ve done. It’s called The Lee Morgan Story. It’s a spin-off from the track off the album called “The Lee Morgan Story.” It’s a hip hop tribute to Lee Morgan. We did a couple shows in New York. And we’re trying to do that in a few other cities.


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