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Ben Williams: The Effect of Sound


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It's continuously perplexing that Ben Williams did not set out on playing the bass first. Forced to pick the most attractive string instrument amongst the cellos and violins, the 7th grade aspiring guitarist ended up picking the instrument that he, now in his upper twenties, is in massively high demand for and is unsettlingly proficient in. Williams' accolades hit a high peak in 2009 after his win at the untouchably prestigious Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition and he currently counts unique and high-level players like pianist Jacky Terrasson, saxophonist Marcus Strickland, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, and now iconic guitarist Pat Metheny, as band mates.

However, forever the humble and gracious proprietor of music, the D.C. native has tucked his big win neatly under his arm and has continued to create and collaborate with his musical peers to great success. He released his first record as a leader, State of Art (Concord, 2011), to strong critical acclaim and the functioning band for that music, Sound Effect, has been massaging and extrapolating sounds and strong figures of improvisatory musical interplay from that music ever since. It's in this sense that Williams' unintentional arrival at the bass as a youth might not actually be that surprising. Between his intent to put the sound of his band before himself and his questing, non-discriminatory musical spirit and drive, it would seem that whatever instrument Williams had picked, he would have been bound for success.

All About Jazz: The most recent project you've been playing with is the Sound Effect band, which has a lot different, diverse and talented musicians (like saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, trumpeter Etienne Charles and pianist Gerald Clayton). What led you to pick those musicians and that particular arrangement of instruments in particular?

Ben Williams: I worked with all those guys before in various musical situations. Me and [drummer] Jamire Williams both played with Jacky Terrasson's trio, I was working with Marcus Strickland's trio/quartet, also with Etienne's band, and so on and so forth. I am truly a fan of each of the guys in the band and we have an effortless chemistry on the bandstand. We are likeminded in many ways in that we all are very groove-conscious, unselfish players who are into all kinds of music. As far as the instrumentation I like the sound of a frontline with guitar (in addition to the saxophone) because it's such a versatile instrument with its ability to play single line melodies and chords. For me, the more possibilities texture-wise, the better.

AAJ: At Winter Jazzfest, the band played everything from originals to Woody Shaw to Michael Jackson. Is the diversity of sounds specific to the Sound Effect band or more an extension of what you'd want a band to do anyway?

BW: Most of the band's material was written/arranged before I actually formed the group but the way they guys interpret the music is what really gives it an identity. As you can guess from the diversity of repertoire, my musical influence ranges from jazz to hip-hop to classical to R&B, and the guys really know to negotiate all those different styles into something coherent. There are not many musicians out there that can truly represent such a broad spectrum without sounding contrived.

AAJ: When you were recording State of Art, what musical aspects of yourself and/or your musical compatriots did you want to show off in particular?

BW: I didn't really think much about showcasing anything in particular. I really just wanted to make a beautiful record that represents me. The music is what's always most important to me, even above my bass playing. I definitely wasn't interesting in making a "bass-centric" album. My main concern was putting together a collection of great tunes that would take the listener on a musical journey. If anything, I wanted to showcase how well we play together.

AAJ: Are there any future plans for a sophomore effort and/or a new band under your name?

BW: Yes I do plan to record sometime next year for the second album. The band is doing a string of dates for the fall 2012/ spring 2013, so I'll be using that time to work out the new material.

AAJ: What, if at all, was your exposure to Pat's music before the Unity Band project? Were there any records or tunes you'd heard before that you'd really dug?

BW: I was definitely a fan of Pat's music before I got the opportunity to play with him. (ECM, 1976), Question & Answer (Nonesuch, 1989), and Trio Live (Warner Bros., 2000) were some of my favorite records. I really dug his compositions; from the most simple to the most complex, they all have memorable melodies and strong thematic material.

AAJ: Pat came into contact with you via bassist Christian McBride. What led you to be on this record in particular?

BW: Christian recommended me for a few trio dates last year (Pat had actually heard me play for the first time at Juilliard in 2007 per McBride's invitation). A few months later I got a call from Pat about a "special" band he wanted to put together that would include myself, Antonio Sanchez, and Chris Potter. Of course I was ecstatic at the opportunity to play and record with such an incredible band.

AAJ: The lockup between you and Sanchez is particularly strong on this record. Had you played with him in a previous project and what it is, as a bassist, which makes Antonio's drumming particularly unique or receptive to play with?

BW: Me and Antonio had played together on several occasions with other projects and also during the few trio dates I did with Pat, but we hadn't played much together before this recording. Even so, playing with Antonio is very easy from a bassist's perspective. He has everything you could ask for in a drummer; deep groove, incredible clarity, and a great sense of orchestration. From the very beginning our hookup was effortless.

AAJ: The other thing is this is Pat's first "traditional" setup in a while, after doing a lot of meticulously arranged work. Was a lot of the music very specific and micro-arranged or was it more on the side of a "read the chart down" session?

BW: The music Pat brought in for this band was definitely less involved compared to a lot of his more recent works, specifically the Pat Metheny. The charts were pretty straightforward, not super-arranged at all. Our challenge however was to bring these tunes to life and really figure out how to shape each arrangement. There was room for interpretation on our part for sure and we continue the process of improving each tune while touring.

AAJ: Were there any special considerations in walking/comping when it comes to some of the record's extended stuff like the Orchestrion instruments, the synths or even just the Spanish guitar?

BW: The extended pieces (namely the Orchestrion) left me with lots of freedom. I basically had to create my own bass "part" for that material. I really enjoyed the challenge of not really having anything specific to play but to use my musical instinct to come up with something that would best fit with what was going on. Combining that element of almost free improvisation with a semi-structured thing such as the Orchestrion created many interesting possibilities.

AAJ: How does it feel being next in the same lineage of great bassists like Jaco Pastorius up through Scott Colley in terms of being part of Metheny's work?

BW: That's interesting that you brought that up because it something I think about a lot with playing with Pat. It's almost scary to think about the caliber of bassists that have worked with Pat! The bass chair, in his various groups, has been occupied by many legends of the instrument and it is a true honor to follow in that lineage. It makes this opportunity to work with Pat that much more special knowing he's worked with so many bass masters

AAJ: What aspects of playing with the Unity Band were particularly gratifying and/or what has stuck with you in the recording process?

BW: Working with the Unity Band has been a tremendous joy. Everyone in the band plays at such a high level. It is inspiring just hearing them play night after night. I was well aware of how great Pat, Chris, and Antonio were, but working with them closely showed me just how great they really are. This project was particularly special because the material was new to everyone in the band (including Pat!) so it was great to see the creative process with these guys. We all put forth a lot of effort into making this record very special. I think it came out great, especially considering the fact that we hadn't played much together as a quartet before recording.

Selected Discography

Pat Metheny, Unity Band (Nonesuch, 2012)
Ben Williams, State of Art (Concord, 2011)
Jacky Terrasson, Push (Concord, 2010)
Marcus Strickland, Of Song (Criss Cross, 2009)

Photo Credits

Page 1: Courtesy of Fully Altered Media

Page 2: Jimmy Katz

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