Acclaimed Bassist, Composer, and Bandleader Ben Williams Releases I AM A MAN, His Poignant, Most Socio-Political Statement Yet
When it comes to black music, Washington, D.C. produces its share of game-changers. That long list includes Duke Ellington, Chuck Brown, Marvin Gaye, Shirley Horn, Roberta Flack, Bad Brains, Meshell Ndegeocello, Wale, and Oddisee. You can add Ben Williams to that venerated roster.
For more than a decade, Williams has steadily become one of the most acclaimed and versatile bassists in modern jazz. In 2009, he won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. He’s anchored ensembles led by such giants as Pat Metheny, Stefon Harris, Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, and Mulgrew Miller. And as a leader, Williams revealed his talents as a keen composer and bandleader on his first two Concord Records albums – State of Art (2011) and Coming of Age (2015).
As gripping as those albums are, they don’t prepare you for Williams’ newest album, I AM A MAN, released Rainbow Blonde, a new imprint co-owned by singer, songwriter, and kindred spirit, José James. Sonically, the new album departs grandly from the mostly acoustic instrumental settings of his previous albums. Williams imbued his love for modern R&B and hip-hop and his socio-political awareness subtly on State of Art and Coming of Age. But on I AM A MAN, he brings them to the fore with mesmerizing vocal-centric songs that will surely raise his profile higher in modern soul and rap circles.
With the help from sound engineer Brian Bender, I AM A MAN boasts a humid and hazy sound that recalls Soulaquarian albums released by The Roots, Erykah Badu, Bilal, D’Angelo, Common, and Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor. “I wanted to make this not just a musical statement, but sonically, I wanted to dig into a different sound. We had the opportunity to work in the studio to craft some sounds. What you hear is Brian’s brilliance with engineering. I wanted this record to deal with the past, present, and future,” Williams says.
In addition to playing electric and acoustic bass, Williams sings leads on almost all the songs. Joining him is a stellar lineup, comprised of keyboardist Kris Bowers, guitarist David Rosenthal, tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist Marcus Strickland, percussionist Bendji Allonce, trumpeter Kenyon Harrold, flutist Anne Drummond, and drummer Jamire Williams and Justin Brown. On some cuts, Williams complements the music with a string quartet, consisting of cellist Justina Sullivan, violist Celia Hatton, and violinists Maria Im and Chiara Fasi. Sharing vocal duties are the splendid special guests – Kendra Foster, Muhsinah, Wes Felton, and Niles.
I AM A MAN’s title references Memphis’ historic 1968 sanitation-workers strike, of which many of the African American men marched through the streets with picket signs with the words, “I am a Man” in arresting, boldface type. Photographs of that march appeared in Ava DuVernay’s award-winning documentary, 13th, which explored the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. “I’ve seen those iconic photos before, but for some reason, after watching 13th, they stuck in my head. The image of this long line of men, holding the picket signs, all saying the same thing – there’s something powerful about seeing this message over and over again,” Williams explains, before saying that the messaging reminded him of how we use hashtags today to help ignite activism such as Black Lives Matter and MeToo movements.
Williams acknowledges that the current socio-political climate has inspired many of his contemporaries to create protest music. But he wanted to do it differently. “I wanted to do it that wasn’t just coming from a place of anger,” he explains. “Instead of just lashing out, I wanted to turn the mirror on us and show the world the complexity of our humanity as black American men. I wanted to discuss how we process our daily lives – mentally and spiritually. I wanted to deal with issues from a more personal approach. There are certain things that we deal with that are just unique to our experience. I wanted to talk about it.”