Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Bass Player to Watch

When young Ben Williams stepped on to the stage at the Kennedy Center in his native Washington, D.C., to participate in the Thelonious Monk Institute Bass Competition, he was nervous. There must be a certain amount of nerves connected with any “competition” but the jury for this particular prestigious event consisted of arguably the best bass players out there. By “out there,” I mean the planet Earth.

“I purposely made sure I didn’t look into the audience to see where they were sitting,” Williams said in a recent conversation. A man with an easy sense of humor, he chuckled at the recollection, “It was bad enough that I knew they were there. I didn’t want to look in the crowd look in the crowd and see them in the front. Ron Carter, Dave Holland, Christian McBride, John Patitucci just sitting there looking at me. I didn’t want to see that.”

Williams won the competition, its $20,000 scholarship, and a chance to record for Concord Records, which he will do on June 16-17. He expects his debut recording will be out early next year.

“They were all really cool,” Williams said of the judges that day. “Very supportive. It was nerve racking, but at the same time I feel like they were there to support me and all the contestants.”

Lots of people in the jazz world were already aware of Ben from gigs he did during his college years, which ended recently in New York City, where the 25-year-old has lived for a couple of years. He did gigs around his home town -- mostly R&B -- and then got into jazz in junior high and high school, the latter of which was Duke Ellington School of the Arts. He developed a strong jazz repertoire there. A teacher gave him a copy of Kind of Blue, the iconic Miles Davis album.

“I still remember how I felt the first time I listened to it. The first track, ‘So What.’ ‘Freddie Freeloader’ after that. I couldn’t even get past the first two songs. There was this overwhelming feeling of, like, shock and amazement. It’s like tasting chocolate cake for the first time, or something that you really love,” he said. “That first time. When you hear it, it feels like you’re going through this metamorphosis. You’re deep in this feeling that you’ve never felt before. I was very curious too. I knew at that point I wanted to do what I heard these guys doing. I want to be a part of that. I guess that’s when the jazz bug bit me.”

He played jazz gigs while at Michigan State University, under tutelage of Rodney Whitaker. From there he went to the Julliard School in New York City for his master’s degree, which he received last month. Living in the city, he getting to play with jazz notables, and went to work for the likes of Stefon Harris and Jacky Terrasson, touring and recording.

On May 22, he did his first road gig as a leader, bringing a quintet to Saratoga Springs, NY, under the auspices of Saratoga Performing Arts Center, which runs the annual Freihofer’s Jazz Festival at the end of June.

On stage, Williams had an easy presence, joking with the audience between songs. At the helm of the band, he was steady. The group was composed of some of the best young players on the Big Apple scene -- Otis Brown II on drums, Aaron Goldberg on piano, Marcus Strickland on tenor and soprano saxes, Matt Stevens on guitar. In the beginning, the group sounded like they hadn’t played together that much. Outstanding individually, the group sound needed some more cohesion. That element picked up as the night when on and if the young bassist can keep that going in spite of the vagaries of today‘s music business, the future is quite bright.

The group reworked Woody Shaw’s “Moontrane,” Stevie Wonder’s “Part Time Lover,” Buster Williams’ “Christina,” and Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way.” He also tossed in originals like “Dawn of a New Day,” a loping, mid-tempo, melodic vehicle that features the tasty piano of Goldberg, a growing presence in jazz, and Strickland on soprano, who played with gusto throughout the evening.

Williams solos during the night, sometimes long, always seemed melodic. He didn’t bring out some of the thumping technique that bassists like to employ to get the deep resonant sound. Ben has a nice sound, and his ideas were charged with pushing the melody and were creative in doing so. Noteworthy was his arco playing. Often times I find myself cringing when a bassist reaches for the bow. Not so on this night. He has a crisp attack and gets a great sound. (He also has classical training in his background). He played it blissfully over the romantic “Christina” melody.

Williams never called breakneck bebop tunes. The arrangements fluctuated in dynamics and range, ass did Williams individual playing. Even tough he has a strong R&B background, the version of Michael Jackson’s “Little Susie” was more abstract than pop or soul, then built in intensity. His solo had him harmonizing with his own bass lines by alternating lines on the bass.

It was a good set of music, and there’s much more to come. With that in mind, it’s also interesting to hear Ben’s response to what he feels is the key to his early success. It’s not woodshedding. It’s not his education. It’s not his contacts with particular musicians.

“Being a good person, first and foremost, really goes a long way. Being nice and being able to get along with people. Being a good human being. Being the kind of person people want to be around. Before you even play a note, you get a vibe about the kind of person you are. I try to maintain a good positive energy and be the kind of person people want to work with, first of all. Be as professional as I can. Always being prepared for the gig. Do my homework. Give it 110 percent. I think I really give a good message to people that their music matters, that you really care about the music and you’re serious about it. When they call you, it’s going to be a good time.”

That seems healthy to me. Speaks to character. His mother, who was at the concert, would be proud of that one. It speaks well for longevity in an industry that can eat people up.


Things are heating up in the Capital District of New York State -- Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga and around.

On Sunday, June 6, the Caroline Street Blues and Arts Fest features Murali Coryell, who’s a hot young blues guy. He's also the son of guitar wizard Larry Coryell. Murali plays the Capital Region every so often. The Chris O’Leary band (Chris worked with Levon Helm for some time, and maybe still does on occasion) is also one to watch, as is George Fletcher’s Bourbon Renewal band. George is a fine local guitarist who runs two bands. The other, Tequila Mockingbirds, is an acoustic duo, though a scorching one. Not wimpy bullshit. Blues and jazz and rock and bluegrass and things in between.

But the electric blues band is always exciting. Kick ass tunes and solos. Give you da blues, baby. Great to check out. Food and arts and crafts will be decorating the Caroline Street area, along with other music to hear.

That night, Frank Vignola plays Caffe Lena on Phila Street in Saratoga.

Next week is SaratogaArtsFest, which will feature Warren Bernhardt playing some superb solo piano at Putnam’s Den on Putnam Street. All the arts are being represented June 10-13, but thankfully they have always had a jazz headliner group.

The Freihofer Festival, two days of great music on two stages, is June 26-27. It’s followed by a few concerts at Skidmore College in Saratoga. June 29, Stefon Harris and Blackout (featuring Williams on bass); July 1 and July 8, the Skidmore Summer Jazz Institute faculty concert, which features people like Dennis McKrell, Pat LaBarbera, Curtis Fuller, Bobby Shew, Bill Cunliffe and more. July 6 has pianists Bill Charlap and Rene Rosnes, now a married couple, performing a concert of duets.

Check Albanyjazz.com for much more jazz in the region and visit All About Jazz every chance you get!!

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