Ben Williams is not your usual 20-something jazz musician. Unlike so many of his peers, the bassist doesn't try to stuff 16th notes into each solo, instead filling them with melodic, carefully shaped phrases.
"I try to play like a vocalist who has to deliver the lyrics in sentences so the words make sense," says Williams, 26. "So I try to think about my phrasing in terms of punctuation. If a section is going to repeat, maybe it needs a comma before it comes around again. If a line is searching for something, maybe it needs a question mark. If a line is excited about something, maybe it needs an exclamation point. With an instrument you don't have lyrics, but you still think in sentences."
That precociously mature approach helped Williams win the Thelonious Monk Competition for bassists at the Kennedy Center in 2009, which led to high-profile contributions on such albums as Stefon Harris's "Urbanus" and Jacky Terrasson's "Push." It also led to a contract with Concord Records and the release this week of his debut solo album, "State of Art," which he will celebrate with four shows at Bohemian Caverns this weekend. It's a triumphant homecoming for Williams, who lives in Manhattan but grew up in Northeast Washington, studying music at the Fillmore Arts Center and Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
Williams also studied the music playing on Washington radio and his mother's stereo during the '90s - Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Chuck Brown, Tupac Shakur, Prince, James Brown and Sade. Those influences are all over "State of Art," which features interpretations of Jackson's "Little Susie," Wonder's "Part-Time Lover" and "Things Don't Exist" by Sade disciple Goapele. Williams's own composition "Mr. Dynamite" is a tribute to James Brown, and the opening original "Home" plainly echoes Chuck Brown's go-go music.
But these aren't R&B numbers. They're jazz improvisations upon popular music in much the same way that Benny Goodman and Miles Davis reinterpreted pop songs by George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers. "Little Susie" begins with a minute and a half of unaccompanied upright bass, an extended solo that draws from Jackson's spirit if not from his actual composition. In one of the album's wittiest moves, the Wonder song is treated as a '40s swing standard.
"Whether it was Miles playing 'My Funny Valentine' or Coltrane playing 'My Favorite Things,' the guys who played standards were playing Broadway tunes, which were the pop music of the day," Williams says. "What we're doing now is basically the same thing - addressing the influences of contemporary pop culture. The beat is a little different, yeah, but me playing a Michael Jackson tune is not so different from those guys playing a Cole Porter tune."
That difference in the beat, however, is important. It is the challenge of each generation of musicians to translate the musical pulse of their own era into jazz. That's what Williams handles so successfully on "State of Art," even if he's playing acoustic bass on 10 of the 11 tracks.
"You have to understand the vocabulary of any particular style before you try to interpret it," he says. "Playing a Cole Porter tune like 'Love for Sale,' you have to understand that era. You have to understand that these are tunes taken from musicals rooted in the swing tradition, and there's a certain way of phrasing melody and rhythm. Playing a Michael Jackson or Prince song, you have to understand the soul and funk scene they're coming from. They're both heavily influenced by James Brown, so you have to check that out, too. If you don't do your homework, it won't sound right."
As a youngster, Williams thought he might want to be a funk or hip-hop musician, but as he mastered his instrument, he realized he could bring all that with him into jazz, and do pretty much anything he wanted with them.
"What makes jazz so unique," he says, "is it's a big empty pot and you throw your own ingredients in. . . . Jazz has the freedom of being whatever you want it to be. That's what appealed to me as a kid. It seemed so cool to me that these guys were improvising, in essence creating the music right in front of me.
"There's never a dull moment in jazz; you're always discovering something new. There's always something to be done that hasn't been done yet."
-- Geoffrey Himes (July 1, 2011)