Late in May, Ben Williams woke up early. He sat in front of a mounted speaker and framed photo of Prince and spoke frankly—rhythmically—from his Harlem bedroom to roughly 16,000 Instagram followers and countless others who might care to listen. “I don’t write that much,” he says. “I’m not really a poet. But these words just kind of came out.”
The DC-native bass player, composer, and casually-reluctant bandleader has accrued associations with such figures as Pat Metheny, Terence Blanchard, Maxwell, and Dee Dee Bridgewater. Before the lockdown, he issued his third release as a leader I Am A Man (Rainbow Blonde Records), and first release as a singer. The album features Marcus Strickland, Keyon Harrold, Kris Bowers, Jamire Williams and Justin Brown, as well as special guests Kendra Foster, Niles, Wes Felton and Muhsinah.
I Am A Man teems with thematic development, both musical and emotional, at once richly layered and expressively direct. Ahead of his livestream performance at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, August 6, Williams sat down remotely with the Gallery to discuss collective intuition, storytelling and his recent and evolving artistic awakening.
The Jazz Gallery: So much of your ethos is based in groove. And that presents the concept of repetition. You are a master of using elements of repetition to create story structure inside it and also against it. Can you talk a little bit about how you lean on some of that, conceptually?
Ben Williams: That’s a really dope way of putting it. I never really thought of it in those terms, but I know exactly what you mean. As most people know, the bass’ primary function — in most cases, although it’s a little different in jazz—is to provide a rhythmic support or groove. Most of the time, the groove involves something repetitive, whether it’s something rhythmically repetitive or it’s a phrase that’s repeated over and over again—like a version of a theme. You can think of a groove as a theme, an idea. Sort of the heart of playing the bass is to find variations of this theme we’re playing, and to tell a story but inside this thematic idea. That’s kind of how I operate, on a larger scale, with ideas. This last project is very much based on a small idea that I’ve extrapolated to different topics, and these topics become songs.
The phrase “I am a man” was a mantra of the 1968 sanitation workers strike in Memphis which is sort of similar to Black Lives Matter [in terms of] famous models that became the mantra of a protest or a movement. “I am a man” was that [mantra] for that particular movement, and it became popular throughout the whole civil rights era, the Civil Rights Movement. So I took that phrase and unpacked it so that I’m not just addressing this one specific protest and this one specific event; I’m really exploring the idea of the phrase itself. It kind of takes me on a road; it’s like I’m trying to get into the head of the workers—the people who were on strike back then—put myself in their shoes, ask myself, “Why did they have to say, ‘I am a man?’” Obviously, that’s what you are, but because of the society and the circumstances they were in, they had to say this because they weren’t treated as such.
So I bring that phrase into a modern context. I’m thinking about my experience as a Black man, growing up in this country and today, and of the complexities of my existence — the existence of my culture as a whole. So in that same sense, I’m taking that small idea and really exploring it. I’m talking about different subjects like spirituality, police brutality the idea of perseverance, addiction, love. I guess in that sense, it’s like sort of the theme. The basic idea is the groove, and I’m finding ways to explore that idea.
TJG: You’ve been working with some brilliant singers of supreme range for years now, and recently you started offering listeners your own vocal concept, including what we hear on I Am A Man.
TJG: There’s so much history in your music—Black consciousness, American history, Black culture, Black women’s issues—that’s all there before we even hear any lyrics. But there is the added mode of communication through lyrics in words and phrasing. Some lyrics were written for this record, and some existed long before you were born, but resonate.
TJG: Do you feel artists who engage in social criticism and calls to action, in addition to personal reflection, need these multileveled means of communicating their messaging?
BW: It’s important to tell the truth in the best way you know how. Whatever means you have to get there, that’s just what you need to do. That’s what I’m doing with this project. It wasn’t just, “I’m going to start singing now,” being this singer-songwriter who plays bass. What really motivated me to do this was the message. I just needed to make this message as clear as I possibly could.
At the beginning, this project wasn’t really intended to be this album of me singing. A lot of the songs, they started as tunes, but I kind of kept getting pushed in the direction of writing a song; adding the lyrical content I just found was necessary to make clear what I wanted to talk about. Actually, it was going to be more like a special guest [record], and I was gonna have different singers sing songs. But I was inspired, actually, by José James. We were on the road, he heard some of the demos of the songs I was working on and he was like, “Who’s that singing on the demos?” and I was like, “That’s me,” [laughs]. And he was like, “Have you ever thought of singing these songs yourself? You sound good.” Eventually, I found the nerve. I [figured] I’m just going to sing these songs myself because, you know, it’s personal. I thought I could pull it off. That’s what it ended up being.