Ben Williams’ Righteous Vocal Power

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Ben Williams’ I Am A Man has been issued through Rainbow Blonde, a new label founded by vocalists José James and Taali and engineer Brian Bender.

(Photo: Janette Beckman)

Ben Williams was completely mesmerized by 13th, director Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary about mass incarceration and racial inequality. The jazz bassist was especially intrigued by a still photograph depicting a 1968 strike by Memphis sanitation workers. In the picture, black union members are picketing on the city’s sidewalks, walking past a gauntlet of bayonets held by white National Guardsmen. Around each protester’s neck hangs a placard bearing this phrase in bold capital letters: “I Am A Man.” It became the title of Williams’ new album.

“After watching the movie,” Williams recalled, “I researched a little more, and realized that was why Martin Luther King was in Memphis when he got shot. The visual of this long picket line of all these men carrying the same sign reminded me of how we use hashtags today, how we all adopt a phrase to sum up how we feel.”

The photo conveys an intense level of dignity: The way the men walked in dark suits and fedoras re-

inforced the message on the signs they carried. Those four words distilled a long list of grievances—underpay, racism and working conditions—into a concise demand for recognition and respect as human beings. It was a demand the city’s government had been unwilling to meet.

“I wanted to address the social climate and deal with injustice,” Williams explained, “but I wanted to take another route and not come from a place of protest. I wanted to go into the minds and the spirits of the people who were protesting, to really deal with the humanity of those black men who had to remind society that they are men, that they are human beings. I wanted to dig into that phrase and what it means. What did it mean to them? What does it mean to me?”

The picket signs were a testament not only to the power of a union but also to the power of language. When Williams, 34, decided to make the struggle for equal rights the central theme of his third album, the bassist figured he would have to take a lesson from those signs and make language a major means of expressing himself. He would have to step forward as a singer for the first time in a recording studio.

Williams won the 2009 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Jazz Bass Competition and had then, as a member of guitarist Pat Metheny’s Unity Band, cemented his reputation as one of his generation’s finest bassists. But with I Am A Man, he emerges as a lead singer. He’s asking listeners to shift their focus from his dexterous fingers to his unproven pipes.

“When I started doing this project, I was writing mostly instrumental tunes,” he said, “but I realized I could only express certain things with words. People may see you do one thing and they categorize you as that—but I don’t think of myself as one thing. I can’t say I ever imagined I’d be doing this, but when it started moving in this direction, I wasn’t afraid to go with it. This is the first time anyone, including my own mother, really has heard me sing.”

His initial idea was to compose instrumental music inspired by social issues (and he still hopes to release those pieces later in 2020), but Williams couldn’t keep lyrics out of his new project. He considered hiring established singers to handle the vocals. So, as he had in previous collaborations with vocalists, Williams created demos on his home computer, playing all the instrumental parts and singing all the vocal parts himself. But when he started playing the demo tracks for colleagues, he got an unexpected reaction.

“The first person who really heard these songs was José James,” Williams said. “I was on the road with his Bill Withers project, and we were just sitting around. I played Jose one of the demos, and he said, ‘You’re singing that song? You have a nice voice; you should sing more.’”

But Williams wasn’t ready to share his vocal talents. His own band had Chris Turner handling the singing, both on older songs and on songs from the new album. But one night, the bassist had just finished a new song and was aching to try it out.

“There wasn’t time to teach it to Chris,” Williams recalled, “so I said, ‘I’ll just try it.’ It was scary. It was one of those moments where you just take that plunge and jump off the cliff. ‘Don’t overthink it,’ I told myself. ‘Just go ahead and do it.’ I always say, ‘The higher the risk, the higher the reward.’ It went well enough that I said, ‘Let’s keep doing this and get better at it.’”

It wasn’t the only transition happening in Williams’ career. He was signed to Concord Records, which had released his acclaimed first pair of albums—State Of Art (2011) and Coming Of Age (2015)—but now, when it came to record labels, Williams “felt the arrows pointing in a different direction.” Meanwhile, James, singer Taali (aka Talia Billig) and recording engineer Brian Bender were forming a new record company, Rainbow Blonde, and they invited Williams to join the roster. Williams was a fan of Bender, for his ability to give jazz albums by Nate Smith and Kris Bowers the raw, old-school presence of Al Green or Earth, Wind & Fire. Bender wound up the engineer and programmer on I Am A Man.

“I wanted to change everything about my career—how I made records, what they sounded like,” Williams said. “I knew I couldn’t do this album the way most jazz records are recorded, two or three days in the studio, where you’re just capturing a performance. There was a lot of production on even the demos, and I knew I couldn’t replicate that in two or three days with my band. The timing of the new direction, and the new label, all came together.”

To assemble the pieces, the bandleader brought four-fifths of his road band into Bender’s L.A. studio (himself, saxophonist Marcus Strickland, guitarist David Rosenthal and drummer Justin Brown), along with guest vocalists Kendra Foster, Muhsinah, Wes Felton and Niles. Handling the keyboards was Williams’ old Juilliard classmate Kris Bowers, now based in southern California, where he works on film scores.

“I thought [Bowers] would be a perfect fit,” Williams said, “because he’s coming out the jazz harmonic tradition, and a lot of these songs are about capturing a sound and a feeling. As a film scorer, that’s what your job is.”

The core of the new album is a group of three consecutive songs about young black men being killed. This almost-cinematic trilogy begins with “Take It From Me,” written and sung by Williams over a herky-jerky drum part from Brown and inside a dense, murky sound design by Bender.

“I think Justin is one of the best drummers of our generation,” Williams said. “He listens to a lot of music. When you go on the road, you learn how diverse each guy’s musical taste is. With Justin, you can hear the influence of the great drummers, but you also hear the influence of hip-hop, r&b, gospel. When he plays a groove, it has that J Dilla feel, like it’s just off the grid a little bit, which gives it its character. It feels like our generation.”

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