Call it a generous fluency, an affable virtuosity. Call it a true band spirit. The best bands have all had something that can't be forced: A refined mastery of music and a willingness to converse through music. That's what you hear, above all, on bassist Ben Williams' sophomore recording, Coming of Age: The sound of a musician who's cultivated an authentic rapport with some of the best young players in New York City.
"We have these group texts that we send to each other all the time,” Williams says of his band, Sound Effect. “We're just as entertaining to each other off stage as on. If there were ever a reality show about jazz, we'd be good candidates for it!”
Coming of Age for the 30-year-old Williams means playing a lively role among his peers and a vital part in the music world at large. After winning the prestigious Monk Institute Competition in 2009, Williams got busy turning his youthful promise into real achievement. “My career as a bandleader and composer started from the moment I won,” he says. “I had this opportunity to say something—and an obligation, too.” In 2011 Williams delivered a debut album, State Of Art, to great critical acclaim and toured widely as a bandleader with Sound Effect. He became a sought after and beloved sideman, playing so many sets at one year's Winter Jazzfest that he rarely left the stage. Most impressively, he assumed a highly-coveted place in guitarist Pat Metheny's Unity Band. “Ben has a fearless and open-minded approach to what music can be,” Metheny has said. “A wonderful combination of skills.”
For all his strides in bandleading and performing, on the track Coming of Age Williams shows his greatest growth as a composer. “Composing seems like a nebulous thing,” he says. “But the ability to translate a feeling into actual music, takes a lot of doing it, a lot of practice. Which chord is going to invoke this feeling? What's the best key for this idea?” And Williams has some big ideas and feelings to convey, necessitating heavy skill in musical translation and storytelling. On “Toy Soldiers,” for example, a martial rhythm and chantlike riff send a message about the sacrifices of war. He wrote the uplifting “Strength And Beauty” on the day of the 2012 Newtown school shooting.
“The tragic news hit me hard, and this tune came to me as a way of feeling my way through the tragedy. The title was inspired later, when I saw how [jazz saxophonist] Jimmy Greene and his family responded to losing their daughter at Newtown. Their pain is something most of us can't even imagine, but the way Jimmy held it together and became a beacon of light and true strength was an inspiration to everyone.”
Williams takes a page from the Miles Davis school of bandleading by encouraging his band members to compose in the studio, too. For the R&B tribute anthem “Voice of Freedom (for Mandela),” Williams enlisted the smooth soulfulness of singer-songwriter Goapele—and then headed in to record the song with a characteristically open mind. In the studio, saxophonist Marcus Strickland contributed an on-the-spot horn arrangement with the sunny harmony of a South African choir.
As much as Williams writes in response to politics and current events, his compositions are a respectful celebration of the musical past, too. The driving samba rhythms of “Forecast” are an homage to the jazz fusion group Weather Report, with the tune's melody inspired by Wayne Shorter's “Over Shadow Hill Way.” Williams's fluid fretless grooves on “Half Steppin’” recall Jaco Pastorius's “Teen Town.”
Williams sees covers of pop tunes as a bestowal to the jazz canon. “I always like to contribute new repertoire to the jazz songbook,” says Williams. “For me it's very important to shout out all the young, new songs coming out.” His gift on this album is a moving instrumental version of Lianne La Havas’ breakup ballad “Lost & Found.” Guest trumpeter Christian Scott communicates the contained heartache of La Havas's song lyrics, with a lightly arranged string quartet adding the right amount of solace.
Coming of Age concludes with the sweeping title tune, a showcase for Williams's broad stylistic range. “I wanted 'Coming of Age' to feel big,” he says. “I was thinking of it in movements, as a kind of mini-symphony.” In the final section of “Coming of Age,” Williams picks up a bow for the only time on the record, filtering the sound to other worldly but soulful effect. “The vibe I was going for at the end was Prince,” Williams says. “I wanted it to feel sonically transformed, tripped out.” It's an auspicious end to an accomplished sophomore recording, with Williams' bowed strings sauntering off into the stars to explore for the next album.
Whatever comes next for Ben Williams, it's sure to be as engaging as it is virtuosic. As an artist who's come of age, Williams' raw talent has evolved into musical grace, conviction, and power. He's a musician in meaningful dialogue with his band Sound Effect, with current events, with musical styles past and present, and finally, with his listeners.
“My favorite thing is when someone comes up to me who's heard my music and they're singing one of my tunes,” Williams enthuses. “Humming a melody! That's the best feeling in the world, when one of my tunes has stuck in someone's head.”