Ben Williams’ Righteous Vocal Power


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)

“The vocal material felt strong, fresh and honest,” Brown said. “I kept my ear open to what he was saying musically and emotionally as a vocalist, so I could allow myself to be open to where the music needed to go. I always pay attention to the song titles. Like the song “March On,” that statement felt like an encouragement to keep pushing yourself and not to give up in a time of struggle. So, that’s the energy I tried to put into the groove.”

For “Take It From Me,” Brown’s push-and-pull beat reflects the anger and sadness that accompanies murder. As Williams’ bass and Bowers’ piano reinforce the dangers and alienation of America’s urban streets after midnight, Williams’ bleary voice laments, “Take it from me: The world is out to get us.”

That gives way to Niles’ rap segment—a father schooling his son on the realities of racism and violence. A piano solo brings in the sound of a police siren, a car pulling over, a door opening and a woman’s voice on a phone, saying, “I thought you would be home by now, but I haven’t heard from you.”

“Take It From Me” is followed by the track “Come Home,” which opens with Rosenthal’s distorted rock ’n’ roll guitar riff, supported by Williams’ fat electric bass line. A woman’s voice, perhaps the daughter of the earlier woman on the phone, sings, “Will Daddy come home? Is he safe?”

“‘Take It From Me’ and ‘Come Home’ are linked, absolutely,” Williams said. “I wanted to address police brutality, but I wanted to find creative ways of telling these common stories. So, I tried to focus on the family surrounding the victim. Every few weeks or so, you see another black man being shot by the police. You develop this anxiety in the back of your head: Will I be next? But it also creates anxiety in the people around them, the wives and children, who absorb those images on TV.”

The trilogy climaxes with “The Death Of Emmett Till,” Bob Dylan’s composition that laments the brutal 1955 murder of a 14-year-old African American boy in Mississippi. The heinous crime—and the fact that the murderers were found not guilty in a trial—fueled the civil rights movement. Williams’ version frames the story with strings, flute, blues guitar, funeral-procession drums and gospel harmonies, as if it were a bonus track on Marvin Gaye’s landmark What’s Going On.

Williams originally wrote the arrangement for the Congressional Black Caucus’ annual jazz concert on Sept. 21, 2017. He was part of a program titled “The Protest Anthology,” featuring everything from Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite to “The Death Of Emmett Till” and Common’s “Letter To The Free.” Other participants included Strickland, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, singer Jazzmeia Horn, pianist Christian Sands and tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith.

“The show was fantastic, an amazing group of musicians,” Williams recalled. “I love doing arrangements; I love to reimagine standards and give them new life. ‘Emmett Till’ has such a familiar melody that you can do so much to that song without obscuring it. I wanted to give it a millennial air and yet keep that church element to it. Those hip-hop and r&b influences often find their way into my arrangements, because I like to connect the dots, if the DNA of the music suggests it.”

Just as jazz musicians of the ’30s and ’40s used swing rhythms and Broadway tunes as raw material for their elastic arrangements and improvised solos, it makes sense that today’s jazz musicians use funk rhythms and hip-hop storytelling. And just as it was crucial for that older generation to respect their source material while finding ways to reimagine their rhythms and harmonies in contemporary ways, it’s just as important for today’s players.

“The adjustments that a musician or dancer makes moving from one style of music to another are always informed by the rhythms between the bass and the drums,” Strickland said. “Charlie Parker’s language on the alto saxophone is fluid and engaging of the harmony, while Maceo Parker’s language on the same instrument is more abrupt and punchy. Bass and drums are what makes us dance and sing differently, and the thing that ties it all together is the sound of the blues.”

“It’s important for jazz musicians to approach any style of music with the same respect and intrigue as they would jazz,” Bowers asserted. “There are times on an album like this where one can impose complex jazz harmonies or improvisation over the r&b/funk/hip-hop sound, but simplicity and part-specificity are also very important in those genres. There’s an art to playing the same exact part repeatedly and focusing on making it feel as good as possible. So, it’s important for jazz musicians to not mistake that simplicity with something being ‘easy,’ or ‘boring.’ If you don’t bring the same energy to a simple r&b/hip-hop part as you would playing on a more complex jazz composition, the music will suffer.”

Prior to this project, Williams had written many songs that featured vocals, but previously he had focused on the music and let his collaborators handle the words. This time around, because this was his project and because he felt so strongly about the message, he wanted to write the lyrics himself. He found it as challenging as learning a new instrument, and he drew inspiration from his favorite songwriters: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Bill Withers and, above all, Marvin Gaye.

“Especially with this subject matter,” Williams said, “Marvin was very helpful in finding new ways of talking about serious issues. He showed us how you can talk about spirituality while wrapping it into a love song. You can fall in and out of spirituality just as you can fall in and out of love. As I looked into the soul of the black American male, the words started to write themselves.”

Perhaps the most ambitious lyric on Williams’ new album is “If You Hear Me,” the confessions of a troubled soul who has some hard questions for God. Over horns and a string quartet swooning in a minor key, and accompanied by jittery drums and guitar, Williams sings with a ghostly echo straight out of What’s Going On. “If you are who they say you are, the truth, the life, the way,” his narrator asks the deity, “why is there so much suffering? Do you hear me when I pray?”

“One of the topics I wanted to address on this album,” Williams explained, “is spirituality, which has been so essential to the black American experience. We’ve needed it in our tumultuous experience in this country. Usually you only hear about it from those who are certain. But I wanted to talk about it from the uncertain side. I wanted to go into the mind of the person who looks out the window, who believes in God, but who doesn’t always feel that love and protection. Maybe people don’t want to talk about it, but that’s an idea I wanted to express: Why are our lives like this?” DB

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On Sale Now
January 2024
Samara Joy
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