Before & After: Ben Williams

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASince winning the Thelonious Monk International Bass Competition, Ben Williams has recorded his 2011 debut as leader, the critically acclaimed  State of Art (Concord), formed his own group Sound Effect, and continued recording and working with top stars, like Pat Metheny’s Unity Band. The 29 year-old acoustic and electric bassist placed 2nd in the JazzTimes critic’s poll for best new artist, and he appears most recently on the newly released NEXT Collective CD. Though he’s been in New York since his Juilliard days, I managed to catch up with Williams the day after Christmas in his hometown of Washington D.C.

1. Wayne Shorter

“Orbits” (from  Without a Net, Blue Note). Shorter, soprano saxophone; Danilo Perez, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums. Recorded in 2011.

Before: Wayne. You hear that tone right away. Is this with Blade, Patitucci and Danilo? Man, I love this band. Brian Blade is one of my favorite drummers. It’s like pure, raw spirit, as if he’s surpassed the instrument itself. He’s not just playing time. They’re so far beyond that traditional structure. They can play a tune where there’s no real solo out front. It’s as if the baton is being passed around all the time. It’s a kind of chamber ensemble. It sounds so free, and it feels like Wayne has no preconception of what’s supposed to happen. He’s just riding the wave. It’s very clear what his journey is and you can hear what he’s discovering. There’s always some message there that you have to listen to. It’s really inspiring.

After: What’s the name of that tune?

2. Wynton Kelly

“Char’s Blues” (from Someday My Prince Will Come, Vee-Jay). Kelly, piano; Paul Chamber, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums. Recorded in 1961.

Before: P.C.? Is this with Philly Joe? Sounds like Jimmy Cobb. Red Garland?  Paul Chambers was the first cat I really got into. His bass lines are so melodic. I use to transcribe a lot of his solos. He had his own vocabulary. When he’s walking it’s melodic, but so supportive and warm.

What do you think of his arco playing?

Because he was one of the first cats I checked out, I thought everyone did that. Then I came to find out how unique he was. Even to this day, there are only a handful of guys who really want to mess with that bow, to play arco and still swing like that. You have to sing through this stick of wood with hair on it. It takes a lot of control.

After: This feels so good. I hear a lot of guys now artificially putting this energy into the music, trying to muscle their way through the swing. But these guys made it sound easy. And it felt so good. And Wynton and Jimmy Cobb’s left hand; that’s the hookup.

3. Brian Bromberg

“Fire” (from Bromberg Plays Hendrix, Artistry Music). Bromberg, basses; Vinnie Colauita, drums. Recorded in 2011.

Before: Jimi Hendrix tune. Is this Victor [Wooten]? Brian Bromberg? [laughter]. He’s one of the few guys who really have a lot of technique on both electric and acoustic. It’s hard to be really good at both. They’re really rocking out on this one. I love Jimi Hendrix.

After: Wow. So I guess what sounded like a guitar is his 6-string with distortion effect? He does a lot of covers, so when I heard someone covering Hendrix with a ton of chops, I thought: who would do something like that? This is very entertaining. I have a lot of respect for that style. And Vinnie Colauita is the man. He’s got to be one of the most versatile drummers around. When he plays with Sting, he’s like a pop drummer. When he plays with Herbie, he’s doing the fusion thing. And he sounds comfortable doing everything. I’ve never played with him but I’d love to.

4. Lionel Hampton

“Mingus Fingers” (from The Legendary Decca Recordings of Lionel Hampton, MCA). Hampton, vibraphone; Charles Mingus, bass, composition and arrangement; Lionel Hampton Orchestra. Recorded in 1947.

Before: [30 seconds in] Mingus. I’ve heard this before but I don’t have this record. Who’s the vibraphonist? Mingus is another one of my guys I got into really early. It kind of scared me for a while because I thought everybody played like that. It sounded like a toy in his hands. You can hear his physical strength. His approach is a little unorthodox, his beat is so elastic. He can play so extremely, either on top or behind. It’s a kind of gravitational pull.

After: I thought it was Lionel, but it’s very Mingus. A lot of motion going on. He has this way of arranging that sounds improvised, as if a large ensemble is making up the arrangement on the spot. There’s so much going on, it’s like being in a traffic circle. But it’s also very clear. I’d like to know who he was checking out. I don’t hear other people in his playing.

5. Ray Brown, John Clayton, Christian McBride

“Bye Bye Blackbird” (from Super Bass, Telarc). Brown, Clayton, McBride, bass. Recorded in 1997.

[immediately] Super Bass, with Ray Brown, Christian and John Clayton. Man, it’s so awesome to hear McBride and Ray together. It’s like hearing father and son. I don’t know anybody who makes the bass look easy like McBride. You can definitely hear the progression of the instrument listening to these guys. Ray is like the Cadillac of bass playing, like an old El Dorado. No matter what happens, you know you’ll be cool. You could run into a horse and you know you’ll be fine. There’s so much confidence in every note he plays. He also takes a lot of chances in his playing, and there’s a lot of tension there. But it never distracts. It always enhances the music. I want to sound that confident when I play. Just to have that much musical knowledge; He knew every tune, he had the tools and he could take care of business. John has that same thing, that huge sound. But they don’t muscle the bass. They let the bass speak instead of forcing the sound. When you watch them play they look like they’re barely working. That’s finesse. Less is more, but this generation has lost sight of that.

6. PSP

“Rappongi Blues” (from PSP Live,  C.A.R.E. Music Group). Simon Phillips, drums; Phillipe Saisse, keyboards; Pino Palladino, bass. Recorded in 2009.

Before: This tune sounds familiar. I don’t really recognize the bass player. It almost sounds like an upright player who’s playing electric. You can hear the Jaco influence in the tone. Is that Monty Alexander playing piano? It’s a little on the generic side. It sounds cool, but to me it doesn’t have a whole lot of personality.

After: That’s Pino? Wow. I’ve never heard Pino play like that. He’s one of my all-time favorite electric bassists, but I’ve never heard him take a solo before. He grooves. Usually I hear Pino because of his sound. He plays fretless but it’s a big, thick, warm sound. He’s on some of my favorite soul and r&b records, like D’Angelo and records that Questlove has produced. I always hear him immediately. He’s like the Ray Brown of the electric bass.

This really shocks me. He’s one of my cats, but I’ve never heard him in a jazz context. He’s got that true bass player spirit; he just wants to groove. He’s not the kind of bassist who will lead his band or play virtuosic solos. He’s a musician’s bass player. He grooves hard as hell. Pino and Questlove sound so great together. Thanks for playing that.

7. Robert Glasper Experiment

“Dillalude #2” (from Black Radio Recovered The Remix EP, Blue Note). Glasper, keyboards; Casey Benjamin, Vocoder, flute, saxophone; Derrick Hodge, bass; Chris Dave, drums. Previously unreleased from 2012 album sessions.

Is this the Glasper Experiment? Yeah. I love this band to death. They’re just a true band. There’s a lot of guys that just play together, but they have this chemistry that’s just unbelievable. Their whole concept of a band is like so in sync. And they interpret the music of our generation in a live context. That’s why they’re so popular. They can take a song by J Dilla or Slum Village, De La Soul or Tribe Called Quest, or any song that’s come out recently and just take that thing to the next level. As a band, I think of them as a modern day Headhunters. Individually, all the guys are great players and they never try to outshine. It’s all about the music, the groove and the atmosphere. I’m a big fan of Derek Hodge, a huge fan, in so many different ways. He’s not just a great bass player; he’s an excellent musician who plays the bass. That’s why he’s done so much work. He’s the musical director for Maxwell and Jill Scott, and he can do that as well as anybody. And he can play with Mulgrew Miller and Terence Blanchard and do that. He understands music in a deep way. I know this band is like an international hit now, but I remember when they were doing random hits, like at the 55 Bar, but they would announce it at the last minute and people would flood in. This was the age before Twitter, maybe 5 years ago. They’re one of the most influential bands right now. I’m really happy for them.

After: I haven’t bought this yet. It’s from Dilla Beat, it’s called MC Squared. They brought attention to J Dilla into the jazz world. The sound of a hip-hop producer has infiltrated the jazz scene. You can go to Europe now and hear cats at a jam session playing Dilla grooves, and that’s thanks to Rob and guys who know what to do with it.

8. Gary Karr

“Tosca: Act III: E Lucevan Le Stelle” (from Super Double Bass,  First Impression). Karr, bass; Harmon Lewis, piano. Recorded in 1999.

It’s definitely a classical bassist. Is it Gary Karr? Wow. It’s beautiful–super expressive tone and vibrato. It’s almost cello-like. I could tell immediately that it wasn’t a jazz bassist playing arco. I’ve done my share of listening to Gary Karr. He’s recorded the great standard bass repertoire. His playing is flawless, and as a bassist who’s attempted to played a lot of that repertoire, it’s hard, technically, to get it to sound flawless. The bass is a cumbersome instrument and it’s not meant to be played like that.

But it’s a violin.

It’s a big ass violin [laughs]. It’s a monster. I’m getting flashbacks of listening to this music, listening to Gary Karr and asking how he makes it sound so easy.

So how do you make a monster sing?

Tons and tons of practice to overcome the obstacles. No shortcuts to that. And you have to put yourself in the mind of a singer. He’s so well in tune. People don’t realize that when you play arco like that your intonation is more exposed than playing pizzicato, because the sound is so clear and direct. And he’s playing in a very high register, and the notes are getting really small and close together and it’s even harder to play in tune. Man, he’s killing that shit.

9. Peter Kowald & Joëlle Léandre

“Souerbet Frereboise” (from Duos: Europa America Japan, FMP). Kowald, bass; Léandre, bass, vocal. Recorded in 1986.

Is that William Parker? It’s two basses. Yeah, man, that’s pretty out. I don’t know who that is.

How does it make you feel?

A little crazy. I mean, two basses playing avant-garde with a classical vocalist. It’s cool. I kind of dig it. They make it work. It’s hard to make music out of that, especially with two basses. That could sound really bad. Two basses anytime is always the potential for disaster. But they pulled it off. It sounds like some modern, free classical piece.

After: Ok, I think I know Kowald. So the singer is singing while she’s playing? That’s even more impressive. Really amazing. I’d like to check out more of that.

10. Victor Wooten

“Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior” (from Sword and Stone, VIX). Wooten, basses, drum programming; J.D. Blair, drums. Released 2012.

Victor? That’s his sound. He’s taken the electric bass to another level, made it hard for everybody [laughs]. He makes it look so easy, too. Everything he does is so clean; the way he’s able to articulate, it’s so precise. But it’s very soulful, very melodic, too. He played just a couple of notes and I knew that it was Victor. There are a lot of choices when it comes to gear, but at the end of the day it’s the person. I’m sure you could give Victor’s bass to Marcus [Miller] and he would still sound like Marcus. And another thing about Victor; Everybody is wowed and amazed by his technique and his virtuosity, but he’s really a funky cat. Take away all that other stuff and check out the way he’s groovin’. He’s as funky as anybody. And that part of his playing is overlooked. It’s not all flash. On this, it’s not a lot of virtuosic technique. It’s just a groovin’ little tune. It’s perfect.

After: There’s some overdubbing here, but he knows how to do that live, too. He’s a spiritual cat. I got to meet him not long ago and we were talking about bass stuff. He’s actually a really nice guy, I mean super nice. If you talk to him you would never think he was a bass god. He pays so much attention to the beauty in music. I’ve read his books and in my conversation with him, he’s very concerned about the energy he puts out into the universe and being a good person. It’s not just about the instrument. It’s coming from a spiritual place and his music is kind of an extension of that. This is a joyful funk. It’s the kind of funk that makes you want to do laundry [laughs].

11. Gladys Knight

“I Heard It Through The Grapevine” (from unpublished, stripped down mix). Knight, voice; James Jamerson, bass. Recorded in 1967.

Gladys, “Heard It Through The Grapevine.” Is this some kind of stripped down version? Is that Bob Babbitt playing bass on this? No, it’s Jamerson. I’ve never heard it with the bass soloed out on that. Man, it’s funny. I don’t get to talk about James Jamerson a lot but he’s one of the most influential bassists on my playing. It’s definitely in there. It goes back to my Mom, who had a lot of Motown records. And even before I picked up on a bass, I was digging on Jamerson, though I didn’t really know who he was at the time. He’s fearless. He gets away with so much stuff. He’s playing a lot of notes but in the context of the groove, in the same way that Ray Brown played a whole lot of stuff but it was always pushing the groove. Harmonically, he’s in there. And he never repeats himself. Every chorus, every few bars he’s coming up with something new. I’d love to go back in a time machine and ask him about his approach to that concept and how he decided to play like that. And Gladys is so incredibly soulful and sounds good to this day.

12. Ron Carter

“The Golden Striker” (from The Golden Striker, Blue Note). Carter, bass; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Russell Malone. guitar. Recorded in 2003.

Ron. Is this that Golden Striker Trio with Russell and Mulgrew? I didn’t realize these guys hum so much when they play. I’m big on sound, and Ron has one of the most distinctive, most recognizable sounds in jazz. I’ve heard him play on different instruments and he always sounds just like Ron. His harmonic concept is really amazing. He can make any note work. And his bass lines are like stories in themselves. It’s like the left hand of a Bach invention. There’s a relation to the harmony and a relation to the melodic line. And there’s a flow within the line itself. It’s vertical and it’s horizontal. I took a lesson with Ron when I was at Juilliard. He’s very big on fundamentals. He’ll make you play an F major scale for a half an hour until it’s perfect, where every note is the same volume. And he’s another guy who never overplays or works too hard. He finesses the instrument. He understands the tension and understands how dissonance works on a complex level. Every time I’m walking a bass line there’s a part of me that wonders: “What would Ron do?”

13. Chuck Brown

“Woody Woodpecker” (from Greatest Hits: Back It On Up, Raw Venture). Brown, vocal guitar; unidentified band. Recorded in 1998.

Chuck. Without Chuck there’s no Go-Go. He’s the godfather. I always say Chuck Brown is to D.C. as Louis Armstrong is to New Orleans. He gave this city a music that we can always claim is ours. There’re not many cities in the world that can claim an entire genre as its own. There’s no dispute where this came from. It sounds simple but there’s a lot of stuff going on. It’s complex in the same way that Cuban music is, where everyone has a part. There’s almost a clave in it. All the percussion has to fit together in a certain way. And it’s dance music. Totally. It’s meant for really long parties. As much as I loved the music, it wasn’t always the safest atmosphere. There was always some stuff going down. Seemed there was always a fight and people getting shot. But yeah, Chuck started it all. And his thing really comes out of the jazz tradition. People don’t realize how important jazz was in the creation of Go-Go. You can totally hear it. All the guys in the band, the horns were playing bebop vocabulary. The young people have a lot of respect and still dig Chuck. He just passed recently but was playing right up until the end.

14. Marcus Miller

“Tightrope” (from Renaissance, Concord). Miller, bass; Alex Han, alto saxophone; Kris Bowers, piano; Adam Agati, guitar; Louis Cato, drums; Dr. John, vocal. Released 2012.

Before: Janelle Monáe? Is it Larry Graham? Is that from the new Marcus Miller? He’s so funky, man. He does some unbelievable, how-does-he-do-that stuff on the bass. When he’s just laying back and groovin’, it’s as funky as anything you could imagine. But when he takes his solo, it’s like, oh wow. It’s crazy. And he’s got this thing with the thumb, he knows how to do that slap technique, but in a melodic way. You have to have a lot of control over the instrument to be able to do that with all those expressive things that he does. They’re tricks, but he makes music out of all his trickery. In order to be really free on your instrument, you have to have that complete control over it, so you’re not limited by your technique. I know the Janelle Monáe original and this cover totally works. It’s a throwback. I like the rap. Who was that?

After: Really? I thought I recognized that voice. It’s funky, man. It might turn into a band standard. It works, totally.

Name some recordings that changed your life.

Kind of Blue really set me on my path. The Mingus record Blues “n Roots. Another Miles record, My Funny Valentine + Four & More. The first Jaco, self-titled album. That was a kick in my gut. I thought: Am I supposed to be able to do this? He set the bar so high–we’re still trying to get up there. Off The Wall and Thriller, by Michael Jackson. Those two albums are it for me. D’Angelo and that album Voodoo. That kind of messed me up. A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory, and Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key of Life. That’s like the Kind of Blue of R&B.

This Before & After originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of JazzTimes. Photos by Masha Morozova.

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