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Ben Williams at Hamilton Live

Wendy Ross By

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It's always a pleasure being back home. It's always good seeing all the beautiful old faces and new faces. It's a celebration! It's my birthday! You get one day a year to do whatever you want, and this is what I love: being right here playing music for my people. —Ben Williams
Ben Williams
Hamilton Live
Ben Williams Birthday Bash
Washington D.C.
December 27, 2018

Hamilton Live is a trendy performance venue located below The Hamilton restaurant in Washington, DC, mere blocks from the White House. It was the holiday season between Christmas and the New Year, an appropriately festive time for a birthday party. The man of the hour, bassist Ben Williams, was throwing his annual birthday bash and it was so intimate that, despite the audience of several hundred, it felt as if you had received a personal invitation.

Williams's 2009 win for bass in Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, led to many opportunities, including the release of his first CD, State Of Art (Concord, 2011). He is known for his virtuosity and range, and his time recording and touring with Pat Metheny honed and inspired his work ethic and artistic vision as a composer. The spotlight and growth from those experiences influenced his readiness to release his second album as a leader, Coming of Age (Concord, 2015)

As well as being a gifted bassist and guitarist, Williams seems to be that shining star around which people orbit. Everyone knows that cool kid in high school, the one everyone wanted to be, date, or just hang around. Whether they were the star athlete, the comic, or the coolest nerd ever, they knew how to engage people and ended up with an eclectic group of friends. The exceptionalism is magnified in the case of Williams since his attendance at The Duke Ellington School of the Arts. His friends were not only the coolest kids but also the "mad talented" ones, and he had many of them onstage that night.

It was like a funky variety show of prodigious up and comers. Williams credits growing up in the vibrant musical scene of DC for the multi-textured sounds of his music. Though infused with the old masters, as a leader Williams picked fellow genre-bending musicians like GRAMMY-winning trumpeter Maurice Brown to incorporate the fresher sounds of hip-hop, rock, and go-go that influenced his generation.

As the band played a funky intro riff, Williams was introduced by his self-proclaimed best friend Maud Arnold, a tap dancer in a vertically striped, rainbow glitter jumpsuit. In one long, earnest breath, she enumerated his generosity, his hometown roots, and added his Duke Ellington School and Julliard School pedigrees like dollops of increasingly sweet ice cream. The 2013 GRAMMY award for Williams's album with the Pat Metheny Unity Band was the whipped cream on top.

With Arnold's words "Live, here for you tonight, the one and only Mr. Ben Williams" and amidst applause, Williams walked out on stage in a suit the color of a red orange crayon in a Crayola box. The hue popped but became remarkable once Williams pulled the bass into his arms and you realized it matched the blush on the burnished wood of the instrument, and Williams's dotted shirt echoed the dark wood of the fingerboard. Without words, he communicated that he was "all about that bass," that it was part of him as a tool, an instrument, a means to an end, but not the end itself. The goal was to make you think, and make you feel.

"What's up DC?" Williams began, repeating the question until he got the needed decibel range and enthusiasm. "It's always a pleasure being back home. It's a celebration! It's my birthday! You get one day a year to do whatever you want, and this is what I love: being right here playing music for my people." This was the concert's second year at Hamilton Live. It began seven years ago at DC's Bohemian Caverns and was held there until the historic venue closed in 2016.

In the holiday spirit, Williams sang "Merry Christmas Baby" as the band gave a jamming take that intensified as the seconds pulsed by. The blues phrasing, horn riffs, and rhythmic keyboards gave it an old-school feel. "Mo Better," Williams asked trumpeter Maurice "Mo Better" Brown, "What you got to say?" Brown replied with a grooving solo.

"Some people up here are funky with their hands. This young lady is funky with her feet. Maud Arnold on taps!" Williams announced as Arnold went into a complex tap rhythm. "We got the Bishop, Mr. Allyn Johnson in the house," he said to the keyboardist. "What you got to say, Bishop?" The keyboardist had his moment, and when the trumpet came back in, Williams interrupted, "It's' my birthday. You don't mind if I get a slice of this cake?" He played the bass, its deep vibe resonating in a compelling riff syncopating the groove.

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