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.
TJG: Were you freaked out to perform as a singer for the first time?
BW: It’s scary. It’s still scary. To open your mouth, it’s kind of a different reaction.
TJG: Checking out your leader releases, sequentially, you do seem to be engaging more and more of a collective approach to collaboration with each project—and by collective, I mean an actual collective of artists. As you’ve developed as a leader, how have you evolved your approach to clarifying and presenting your vision while inviting collaborative input into your music?
BW: The more I go down this road of being a quote unquote “leader” — and I say that because a lot of times I’m just guiding—half of my job is just getting the right people in the room. I have utmost respect for the people you see playing with me. These are people I admire, and they are all brilliant musicians in their own right. I don’t have to tell them much; there’s not much direction coming from me. I sort of just present the idea and they understand it right away. We’re like-minded, like-spirited, people. There’s a lot of information I put into the music, and I let them sort of find their own truth within that. And the more I do this, the more I feel like I can. In a sense, it gets easier. I don’t feel as much pressure to curate it exactly to be a particular thing. Actually, the stronger I get in my own message, the more I can let go.
I just try to make very clear what I want to say in the song, the message and the feeling that I want to convey. And once they understand that, it’s usually more of a consensual thing that I’m going for; it’s not really about chords and notes and rhythms. They’re all really great at that. They can do that. All I need to do is steer the ship and let them know, “This is the feeling, this is the idea, this is the message. Let’s go there. Let’s find it together.”
TJG: Does that process of sonic messaging or imprinting become more intuitive as you continue to work with different combinations of high-level artists?
BW: Absolutely. It becomes more intuitive, for sure.
TJG: When certain people hear the term “concept album,” what comes to mind immediately for them is What’s Going On, which is so thoroughly about the music and so thoroughly about the lyrics. Can you talk about the thematic layers of I Am A Man, and how the music and the lyrics, together, articulate everything you’re trying to communicate?
BW: Even in the beginning, I wanted to avoid making a quote unquote “protest” record. That wasn’t necessarily the intent, although it kind of goes back to the overall idea of it; it’s about the complexity of our existence as a whole. I kind of looked at the record as a presentation of these three layers of existence of being a Black man. There’s this layer of being a human—there’s just human things we deal with like spirituality, relationships, love and just kind of basic human emotions, feelings that we’re not exempt from. And then there’s also this element of being a man—ideas of masculinity, sort of the structure of society, how the male fits into that structure. And then there’s the layer of being Black, which kind of convolutes everything. Shakes everything up. It affects everything.
You had mentioned What’s Going On; Marvin Gaye was absolutely a huge influence, especially with this project because he’s always been a role model for me musically, especially as a singer songwriter. Just the way he’s able to tackle different subjects—What’s Going On, if you really check it out, it’s not really a protest. It doesn’t feel like it and it doesn’t sound like it. “What’s Going On” is his most famous song. It kind of has a romantic feel to it. And it’s like, he’s talking about a political subject but it’s kind of coming from a place of love and personal relationship. I believe “What’s Going On” was inspired by a letter from his brother who had just come back from Vietnam. He’s inspired not so much by something political, but something personal—his personal feelings about these things.
So that’s what is the motivation behind I Am a Man. It’s about my personal—the emotional and spiritual response to the world and our existence. It’s not coming from a political standpoint. Obviously the struggle and the fight against injustice has just been a part of our experience, whether we want it or not. That’s been our story, a large part of our story. So to tell our story, I have to include that because it’s always been there. It’s always been a part of our lives.
TJG: I imagine you’ve had to become well acquainted with your own vulnerabilities in realizing this album. And recently, you’ve been expressing yourself on Instagram in a more vulnerable way than you have in the past. Do you want to talk about the poem you shared not too long ago?
BW: I think I can speak for everybody when I say it’s been a very emotional time with all that’s going on. You can’t really help being emotional about what’s happening. I try my best to express my thoughts and emotions about things, and I think social media is—I guess your presence on there is what you make it. I want to be able to share some of that a little bit of [myself] with my followers and my public. I’m an artist, so that’s kind of what we do for a living. So yeah, that poem is something I had literally written that morning; it was the morning after seeing the George Floyd video and I just—it just spilled out. I was that moved by what I saw. That’s definitely something I want to share with people.
TJG: What was the reception? Have you been experiencing different responses from the people who know you well and also your fans who maybe don’t know you that well?
BW: It’s been great. I think my view of what I think of myself as an artist has expanded, really grown over the years, and I think that’s what people are seeing. Ten years ago, how I viewed myself was more of a singular thing; my focus was just being a great bass player. I’d just started writing music, so being a composer was starting to become an interest, being a bandleader. But at this point, I almost view myself as a creative person. Just an artist. I’m inspired by so many people who are not musicians who express themselves not through music. And though music is my main vehicle for expression, I’m kind of, at this point, putting everything on the table. So whether it’s spoken word or it’s singing and songwriting or performing or composing or whatever, I’m kind of open to it all now. I feel like I’m evolving as an artist on my own and in my own view. And I’m just showing that to everyone.
TJG: You have a public persona that’s mellow. I can’t really picture you flying off the handle. That said, you’re not only a critical thinker but you’re a critical “feeler.” You feel things deeply and allow them to affect you deeply. And now that you’re sharing more of that complex, rawer side of you — “…this is painful to me, this frustrates me…” — in such a public way on social media, I’m wondering if it is cathartic and also maybe a little scary? Your tendency, at least in public, seems to be a little more introverted.
BW: Yeah, absolutely. It’s all of that. I think about things very deeply. Like you said, I feel things very deeply, and I consider myself to be a very thoughtful person. And I don’t really believe in doing things, especially when it comes to my art, frivolously. I want there to be some meaning behind every song, every note. And I want it to — it’s all coming from somewhere, from some place of deep thought and emotion. And that’s what the art is for, just to express some things that maybe you can’t put into words. At least in a social setting. Things that you can’t really communicate to people. So that’s why I choose to do it through my art. And it is very cathartic. Singing and songwriting has been very therapeutic for me. And it’s kind of opened another door of expression for me. I really enjoy it. It’s been challenging but I’m really having fun with it.
TJG: I think I speak for many when I say I hope you continue.
BW: I will.
TJG: We need to talk about the instrumental album! What prompted its release?
BW: Shout out to Rainbow Blonde—that’s the label that this album is released under. So it’s José James and Talia [Billing], Taali—she’s José’s wife and she’s a great artist—and the engineer who actually recorded and co-produced the album for me, Brian Bender. So they are Rainbow Blonde [Records]. They’re independent. It’s really just the three of them. And so the cool thing about being on this label is we’re very flexible. There’s really no red tape at all. I’m dealing with people that essentially are my friends that just happen to be the people who are putting out my music.
So with the shutdown, with venues being closed and touring being cancelled, we’re finding different ways of keeping the music relevant, extending the shelf life of these albums and finding cool and creative ways to keep the momentum of this release going. That’s more or less what was the idea of putting instrumentals out. We’re doing it across the label, too. Everyone on the label—José just put out instrumentals on his album, and Brian and Taali. We’re doing it together and working together like that. That’s what it is, especially right now. We’re coming together.
TJG: If we were writing a press release for the next six months of your life, what would you want fans, new listeners and media personnel to know?
BW: It ain’t over. There’s more coming. We got stuff waiting in the wings. More content. Like what I was saying at the beginning, we’re going to keep staying on the theme of what I established with the album. Just really kind of milking it for all it’s worth. So expect to see some more cool stuff coming out.
Ben Williams performs August 6 for The Jazz Gallery’s virtual Livestream Concert series. The band features Mr. Williams on bass and vocals, David Rosenthal on guitar and John Davis on drums. Set begins 8pm EDT; tickets are $10/$5 for members. Click to purchase tickets.