Black rimmed Ray Bans and a 10pm hit set the atmosphere as Ben Williams steps onto the bandstand. He picks up his bass and pauses. After a moment of silent conversation, he raises his head and begins to play.
Phrases bubble over the moments between moments, but the presence of pulse is deliberate. Each player embraces a collective exploration that has become a distinctive part of the band’s identity, but wherever they chase the harmony, they follow the same lead.
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“It’s kind of the DNA of my music,” says Williams. “As a bass player, that’s kind of the world I live in- the groove.”
“It’s part of my job, whether I’m leading the band, or I’m a sideman in someone else’s group. So, it starts to translate into my compositions. Not that it always has to be locked into a particular groove, but I think the band has to understand it’s coming from that. No matter how far we stretch it, once you establish what the groove is, then you can be free with it. That’s kind of my whole approach: [experimenting] within a groove.”
His new record, Coming of Age, is an expression of experimentation and balance, but Williams realized his appetite for exploration through groove driven development and risk-taking long before he began composing original music. “I was naturally there, the way I grew up,” he says.
“The musical environment in DC was very conducive to being free. I always played with musicians who knew how to find this balance. They could play a lot of different styles, but it never felt like ‘now I’m playing R&B, now I’m playing soul, now I’m playing jazz-‘ it was just a sensibility. You could hear everything in everything.”
Maturing both as a player and composer, Williams developed his own understanding of that balance through professional associations with distinguished artists such as Stefon Harris and Pat Metheny. “Stefon was very influential in the way I approach music,” he says.
“That band was definitely focused on groove, but it was very open and free at the same time. We got to experiment all the time, on every gig; you never knew what was going to happen. The music was free to go anywhere, but there was always an understanding about finding that freedom in the context of the groove. Being in that band was pivotal in my approach to music.”
Beyond balancing freedom of discovery within the groove, Williams’s playing draws inspiration from another vital component of musical expression, allowing him to find balance both in soloing and comping for other players. “What connects both of those elements, when I’m soloing and when I’m accompanying, is melody,” he says.
“When I’m accompanying another soloist, everything I’m playing is related to some melody. I’m always thinking about two different directions: the horizontal and the vertical. I’m creating a melody under what’s happening above me; that’s kind of the horizontal motion. So, that’s happening this way, but it’s happening this other way, too,” he demonstrates, crisscrossing his arms. “When this guy’s playing this note, and I’m playing that note, it creates a certain counter point, or however you want to think of it. So, in that sense, I’m always thinking about melody, whether I’m actually playing it, or I’m accompanying a melody.
“I always try to be melodic in my accompanying. For soloing, I try to react to the moment. I try to develop ideas and approach soloing as a composer. The same ideas I use when I’m sitting down writing, I use when I’m improvising. It’s all happening really fast, but I try to use to motifs and I try to see where my own ideas lead me. And as a listener you’re following the journey with me, as I develop those ideas and paint a picture.
In addition to shaping his identity as a player, Williams’s conception of balance influences the way he writes. He credits his work with Pat Metheny as a defining moment in his own development as a composer. “He’s another guy who has that balance,” he says.
“Compositionally, he has tunes that are very intricate and complex, and he has tunes that are simple and soulful. It’s all part of one thing; he doesn’t really separate it. So, that’s very important to me, that my music is balanced.
“He’s such a prolific composer. It’s inspiring, and it’s infectious to play his music. I’ve always been a fan of his music and his writing, but to actually get to play his music and experience it from the inside- it’s a lesson. You start to understand what makes him sound like him. When you hear one of his tunes, you know it’s him- his signature is always in it.
“His catalog is so diverse. He has almost through-composed little symphonies with all this written music, and he has these very simple, almost folk-like songs. And they’re all coming from the same place. I think especially with “modern jazz” and the music you hear in the jazz world today, there aren’t that many guys who really have that balance in their writing. All the tunes sound the same- there’s no character. To me, every song should have its own character, something special about it that you can’t find in any other song.”
Recording his new album, Coming of Age, Williams worked to develop that unique quality of character on every track, pushing himself to stretch as a composer. As a touring bandleader, he feels fortunate to work with players of like-minds and kindred spirits.
In addition to special guests Christian Scott and Goapele, the record features Marcus Strickland on tenor and soprano saxophones, Matt Stevens on guitar, Christian Sands on piano and Rhodes, Masayuki Hirano on Rhodes and Synthesizer and John Davis on drums.
“This new project is a band that has been on the road for a few years now,” says Williams. “We definitely have developed a strong chemistry as a group- as a unit.
“When I’m composing for this group, I can almost imagine what the guys will sound like playing it. But you never know- there’s always a surprise. I make sure to leave room in the music for the musicians to express themselves, and to interpret. I try not to write to the point where they’re stuck and there’s not enough room for interpretation. I think you can only do that with musicians you really trust, whom you have a strong connection with. When I write, I always try to leave some room for magic. And it always works out because these are some of the best musicians around.
“The music’s not about me- I’m more or less setting up an atmosphere. There’s only so much I can create on my own; when you have the chemistry of all these musicians, and their input, they’re always adding to the arrangements and offering their perspectives. I’ll bring music to the band and someone might say, ‘why don’t we take this section and loop it?’ or ‘let’s start off with these four bars,’ so I’m always open to that. A lot of stuff kind of develops on the bandstand, too. We play the music and it starts to develop a life of its own. Something might happen on one gig, and if we like it, that can become permanently part of the arrangement. That happens a lot. The music is a living organism.
On playing the Moment:
“I don’t ever want to feel that the guys are coming to the music with expectations. The music is what’s important, and you have to let the music tell you what it needs. You have to let the moment tell you what it needs, too. If you’re not open to it, you’re shutting yourself off to a lot of magic and a lot of beauty.
“We’re all about the moment. There have been a couple times on the bandstand when we all start to veer off into another direction and we’re all kind of cool with it. It might go somewhere we’ve never been before, but as long as we’re all there together, we’re not really afraid. You can just let go of the wheel with them, and trust that something’s going to happen.”
Christian Sands’s studio interpretation of Lianne La Havas’ “Lost and Found” offers a compelling glimpse at that particular brand of trust. “It was really amazing for me to see how well everything [Christian] played fit with the string arrangement on top,” says Williams.
“He didn’t have anything to respond to- he was just playing and trying to be musical, but when I overdubbed the strings, it sounded like they were playing together, almost interactively. I think that’s a testament to his musicality. Even without knowing what was going to happen, his instincts just made everything work.
“We have almost this ESP between us. I think he just understands my language- my musical dialect- almost like we’re from the same tribe. We can communicate on a very personal level because we speak the same language.
“We hang out a lot, too. The whole band, we’re very good friends. We share music and we talk about music all the time. I understand where he’s coming from and he understands where I’m coming from, so I can play a certain thing and it might not have anything to do with this particular song, but we’re so connected that he’ll hear it and he can respond to it.”
As they resolve the final phrase of the encore tune, the band looks to Williams, who looks out at a wide-eyed torrent of applause. He raises his brow and bows his head into the microphone, thanking the audience before stepping off stage. After a successful record release and a full calendar of opportunities to explore the music, his purpose is resolute. “I know I should express whatever I feel,” he says, “and let other people feel about it the way they want to feel.”
Coming of Age (Concord Records) is available now.