The rise of Ben Williams is deeply tied to New York. Days after winning the prestigious Monk Competition in 2009, Williams played his first concert as a bandleader at–where else–The Jazz Gallery. Since then, Williams has toured with greats across the genre’s wide field, most recently José James and Kamasi Washington, while always returning to the Gallery to premiere new work, present fresh ideas, or bring a new band.
Williams’ most recent album, I AM A MAN, was released just weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic brought New York to a standstill. We caught up with Williams to find out about how he’s doing in self-isolation, as well as his thoughts on The Jazz Gallery’s position in the world of New York jazz.
The Jazz Gallery: Hey Ben. How’s the self-isolation treating you?
Ben Williams: I’m trying to make the best of it. I live alone in New York, and this is the most time I’ve spent at home, basically ever, since I’ve been here. I’m trying to use the time to, first of all, get some rest. Then, I’m working on things. Long-term projects, personal projects, musical things. Over all, being still.
TJG: You released I Am A MAN pretty recently, right?
BW: Yeah, that came out in January.
TJG: It’s super fresh. It’s funny, after a big project like that, people either hit the road and start touring immediately, or take some time, rest, and reflect. This time, the world seems to have made that choice for you.
BW: Luckily, I got a chance to release the album and do some shows after the album came out. I went out on the road with Kamasi Washington about ten days after the record was released, and we were out for about a month. By the end of that tour, everything had hit the fan in terms of the pandemic. I had to cancel or postpone dates that were scheduled for when I was getting back. Everyone’s in the same boat. I know people who had really long tours they had to cancel or postpone. We’re all in this mess.
TJG: Did you have gigs booked to support the album that got cancelled?
BW: Yeah. I’ve got more stuff coming up, things that are pending. Not sure if they’ll happen. They may have to postpone those shows too. We’ll see. I’m not trying to dwell on it. I’ve gotten somewhat over the urgency of doing a ton of shows right when a record comes out: These days, because there’s so much content coming out all the time, it’s more important to give the project some longevity. You obviously want to capture the momentum at the release and strike the iron while it’s hot, but I’m always thinking long-term. There’s no expiration date on an album. We’ll get back to these shows at some point, and I have other ideas for expanding the project down the road. It’s going to have a long life.
TJG: It’s beautiful music too, I was listening all morning.
BW: Thank you.
TJG: So you’re now at home alone, twenty-four hours a day. What kind of stuff are you doing to keep yourself occupied, musically or otherwise?
BW: I was just talking to a friend about this yesterday. I’ve been going pretty hard, touring, recording, being busy for the greater part of the last fifteen years. I realize–and I feel a bit conflicted about it–that this has been a necessary break. Sometimes it’s okay to just stop, do nothing for a little bit. It took me a few days, probably a couple of weeks, to embrace not doing something. Nowhere to go, nothing to do. I’ve been going so fast I didn’t realize it, until I came to a complete stop. I’ve been taking things back to the basics.
To be honest, the first week of the lockdown, I said “I’m gonna be practicing all day, I’m gonna write a symphony, a big band chart…” [laughs]. That didn’t happen. I had to tell myself, “This is an unprecedented moment. Just sit down.” I didn’t do much the first week. I’d pick up my instrument, but without any rigorous plan to accomplish or do anything. I needed that. I needed to stop, take this time to recalibrate, reset. Think about the future, focus on being present. I’ve probably done more cooking in the last two weeks than I did all of last year. I’m getting my space together in my apartment, tossing out stuff, going through clothes, stuff that’s been sitting around that I don’t need, paying some attention to the space I’m going to be in for a little bit.