D.C. Native Ben Williams Wins Monk Bass Competition

The annual Thelonious Monk International jazz competitions evaluate promising young players in technique, tone, musicality and sheer nerve. Case in point: This year’s contrabass competition, which finished up last night at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center, was judged by a panel including Ron Carter, Charlie Haden, Dave Holland, Robert Hurst, Christian McBride and John Patitucci.

But the three finalists rose under the scrutiny of their heroes, particularly D.C.’s own Ben Williams, a member of Stefon Harris’ Blackout project. Each of the three finalists, whittled down from 15 at Saturday’s semi-finals, performed two tunes: one instrumental and one standard with guest vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater. A rhythm section of pianist Geoffrey Keezer and drummer Carl Allen provided solid yet unobtrusive accompaniment. In second and third place were Joe Sanders, of Milwaukee, and Matt Brewer, of Oklahoma City, respectively.

Williams won the competition with two barnburners, Oscar Pettiford’s “Tricotism” and a read of “Caravan” with guest Bridgewater. He simply owned the bass, demonstrating the square intonation and stout, fluid technique associated with players like Ray Brown and McBride. His solos were arresting things full of dexterity and fresh harmonic ideas; when it came time to spar with Bridgewater on “Caravan,” he showed deeper listening and a desire to interact with the singer’s theatrical scatting. He wasn’t thrown by her phrases, but saw them as an opportunity for rhythmic synergy.

For his efforts, the 24-year-old bassist received a $20,000 scholarship, a recording contract with Concord Music Group and a future booking at the Kennedy Center.

For a full-length review of the finals, as well as coverage of the night’s all-star Blue Note Records 70th Anniversary Gala, check back at JazzTimes.com.