Among the new things Williams has to give is a reinvented stage persona—a natural outgrowth of his taking on vocal duties. At the Hamilton in D.C., another duet with Foster breaks down into a skit of sorts, with Williams remarking on the sound of footsteps. “It’s either Santa, or someone done broke into the crib,” he says with a funny smirk. “Grab the gun and the cookies, just in case.” Foster, who’s supposed to assume the role of the footstepping visitor, completely cracks up.
I Am a Man is his third album, but in a very real sense it’s also the debut of Ben Williams 2.0. He’s assumed a new creative direction, new collaborators, even a new instrument. If the subject matter isn’t entirely new, his focus and his treatment of it certainly is.
It may also be taking on new dimensions. The restaurant we’re having lunch in is part of a recent D.C. development; it leads Williams to muse about the consequences of gentrification, both in the District and in his adopted home of Harlem. “I know that the price of gentrification a lot of the time is culture and art,” he says. “I want to represent that. Do whatever I can do to remind all the newcomers that this is not just a hip urban playground, that there’s some serious culture that they need to understand.” It could be a preview of his next artistic dispatch.
“It has been great to watch Ben develop as an artist,” Metheny says. “To me, his new record is exactly the record I want to hear right now. … We need his voice in this respect. I look to him myself as a messenger as we go forward.”