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Before & After with Ben Williams

Making it sound so easy

Brian Bromberg
Marcus Miller pays tribute to Miles at Umbria Jazz 2011
Ben Williams

Since winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Bass Competition in 2009, Ben Williams recorded his 2011 debut as a leader, the critically acclaimed State of Art (Concord Jazz); formed his own group, Sound Effect; and continued recording and working with top acts including the Pat Metheny Unity Band. The 29-year-old acoustic and electric bassist appears most recently on the newly released NEXT Collective CD from Concord Jazz, a pop, rock, R&B and hip-hop covers project also featuring Christian Scott, Kris Bowers, Jamire Williams, Gerald Clayton, Matthew Stevens, Walter Smith III and Logan Richardson. Though he’s been in New York since his days at Juilliard, I caught 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 Pérez, 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.

2. Wynton Kelly

“Char’s Blues” (from Someday My Prince Will Come, Vee-Jay). Kelly, piano; Paul Chambers, 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 basslines are so melodic. I used 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). Bromberg, basses; Vinnie Colaiuta, drums. Recorded in 2011.

BEFORE: Jimi Hendrix tune. Is this Victor [Wooten]? Brian Bromberg? [laughs] He’s one of the few guys who really has 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 six-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 Colaiuta 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 Hamp: The Legendary Decca Recordings, MCA). Hampton, vibraphone; Charles Mingus, bass, co-composition (with Hampton and Curley Hamner) and arrangement; Hampton’s orchestra. Recorded in 1947.

BEFORE: [about 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 SuperBass, Telarc). Brown, McBride, basses. Recorded in 1997.

BEFORE: [immediately] SuperBass, 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

“Roppongi Blues” (from PSP Live, C.A.R.E.). Philippe Saisse, keyboards; Pino Palladino, bass; Simon Phillips, drums. 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 ?uestlove 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.

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 2011 album sessions.

BEFORE: 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 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 A 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 Derrick 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 been 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. They would announce it at the last minute and people would flood in. This was the age before Twitter, maybe five 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 Beats; it’s called “E=MC2.” They brought attention to J Dilla in 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.

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Originally Published