Jazz Bassist Ben Williams Talks New Solo Album ‘I AM A MAN’, Making Statements in Music, Soulaquarian Influences and More (INTERVIEW)

Acclaimed Grammy-winning bassist, composer and bandleader Ben Williams is perhaps best known for his work in the jazz world, specifically as the longtime bassist of guitarist Pat Metheny’s Unity Band. Williams has racked up a long list of accomplishments within this world, winning awards and performing with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, George Benson, Maxwell, Robert Glasper, and Pharrell among others. But all of those add up to just one side of this dynamic, multi-faceted artist who these days is thinking well beyond his work as a bassist. On his sociopolitically charged new album I AM A MAN, Williams steps into the limelight as bandleader, singer, and songwriter as he connects the issues of the past and today.

Compared to his work as a jazz artist, I AM A MAN is a major departure as Williams embraces a more hazy R&B and hip-hop Soulaquarian sound that brings to mind acts like Outkast, The Roots, Erykah Badu, Bilal, and D’Angelo. At times you can hear his jazz background coming through, while at others he conjures up soul and rock set to complex drumming and Curtis Mayfield-style strings. Pulsating through it all is natural sense of cool that lingers across this lush sonic landscape Williams has created. The album title references Memphis’ historic 1968 sanitation workers’ strike, during which African American men marched through the streets with picket signs that read, “I Am A Man” in arresting, boldface type. Using this historic event as inspiration, Williams uses his lyrics to draw parallels to our current era and movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. Given the political and social climate in this country, it’s exciting to hear Williams pushing his voice to the forefront with a collection of songs that manages to make a potent statement while also having a sound that is graceful and chilled out. In times of division and anger, it takes a massive amount of talent to be able to capture the spirit and make a statement in a way that balances restraint and urgency.

Recently, Williams took the time to chat about his new album, the messages behind its songs, making a departure from his role as a bassist, and what it means to make artistic statements in 2020.

Where did you get the idea for the album to reference Memphis’ historic 1968 African American sanitation workers’ strike?

The inspiration behind using “I AM A MAN” as the title (and central theme) of this project came from watching the Ava Duvernay documentary “13th.” At the end of the film, there was a montage recapping the film (illustrating how past events have affected present conditions) and there was a still shot of one of the iconic photos from that protest. It was a quick flash, and I’ve seen those photos before, but something about the visual really struck me and stuck with me. There was something powerful, almost militaristic, about the uniformity of their march and them holding signs saying the same thing, “I Am a Man.” I began to really think about that phrase and what it meant to those men; what conditions did they face that caused them to even have to express this message; how does relate to me and how can I imagine that phrase in a modern context? It really helped to guide the conceptual direction of this album and gave me unique perspectives of how to tell my story and express the thoughts, feelings, and spirit of the Black American male.

What parallels did you see between that strike and the Black Lives Matter movement?

I see many parallels between the two movements. Firstly, they both were sparked by public incidents related to racial injustice, BLM being sparked by the killing of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman and the Sanitation Workers Strike being sparked by the death of 2 sanitation workers because of poor and unequal working conditions. Obviously, these “incidents” only represented the tipping point of many years of racial inequality, discrimination, and violence towards the Black community. I see a strong similarity of how the sanitation workers adopted this phrase “I AM A MAN” and how seeing a sea of men with those signs has the same effect as the current use of hashtags throughout social media. Though they are expressed through different mediums, they both ingrain this message into the public consciousness by seeing it over and over again. In many ways, I feel the picket sign is the “original” hashtag; these phrases become slogans and mantras for their respective movements.

Given the current political and social climate in this country, do you feel an obligation or a duty as an artist to step up and make a statement with your music?

It don’t necessarily feel like every artist has a duty to make a social statement through their music, but I do feel that the bigger the platform, the more responsibility one has. I think to truly be a great artist requires a great amount of empathy; that ability to put yourself into other’s shoes and to concern yourself with things and people outside of your own needs and values. I feel the same porousness that allows great artists to absorb the beauty of the world also gives them concern for the injustice in the world. I am very much a sponge that takes in everything around me, the good and the bad, so it is inevitable that I react to everything that I see. I think music is the most powerful vehicle for making social and political statements and so many of my musical heroes have done so, artists like Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Prince, Max Roach, Fela Kuti, and Bob Marley. Knowing how much of an effect music can have on people, I personally feel a responsibility in expressing my thoughts and feelings about both the beauty and the ugliness in the world. The things I’m responding to haven’t happened overnight; I’m just finding my own way to express my thoughts and feelings.

Obviously, many of us can’t help but feel anger at the way things are and the impulse is to lash out, whether with art or in other ways. There is a cool sense of positivity to this album despite making strong statements on a number of issues. Was there a challenge in turning your own anger into music that comes across so smooth?

Yes, there is always a challenge when channeling anger into something positive. I knew from the beginning of working on this project that I didn’t want it to be a “protest” record per se. I knew I wanted to speak on social issues but I wanted to focus more on the humanity of a particular group of people. What really fuels racism and hatred, in my belief, is ignorance; the ignorance of cultures other than your own and the lack of empathy and awareness of how people are affected by the constructs of society. In order for people to be treated equally they have to first be viewed as equal and as complete human beings. Being a Black male growing up in this country is an extremely complex and layered experience. Obviously the angry reaction of how we’re mistreated is part of the experience but there is such more to our experience. To be human, to be black, and to be a man involves a lot of different feelings and emotions and I wanted this project to truly capture the totality of it all. I truly believe allowing people this insight is both therapeutic for my community and will help bring all people together through our shared humanity.

For those who know you for your jazz work, this album feels like a major departure in an entirely new direction. Can you talk about what inspired you to move into that Soulaquarian sound?

Yes, this album is definitely a departure from my previous work but everything I’ve done up to this point has had leanings in this direction. I’ve always made sure that I continue to grow and evolve as not only an artist but as a person as well, and I do my best to try to reflect that growth in my music. The true essence of what most refer to as “jazz” is about growth, evolution, and the freedom of expression, so though it might not be so much “jazz” stylistically, it is very much so in spirit. I knew I wanted to make not only a strong social statement, but a musical one as well. The process of putting this album together was a very different process. Instead of the usual “go in the studio for 2-3 days and record,” I spent much more time in production; the process was closer to how an R&B album would be made. It’s interesting that you mentioned the Soulaquarian sound because I was very much influenced by those records growing up (I was in high school around the time and really beginning to dive into music), artists like D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Common, The Roots. What drew me to that sound was that it sounded and felt like the old records my mother played in the house but it had a more modern, hip-hop influenced flavor to it. Both conceptually and musically, I AM A MAN draws heavily from the past, but is ultimately about bringing that feeling into a modern context, which is what the Soulaquarians did so well. We are very much drawing from the same inspiration which is why it probably feels so similar.

What artists new or old inspired the sound on this album, and were there any specific albums you were listening to more than others going into the recording?

As I mentioned, ‘I Am a Man” is very much about connecting the past to the present, while looking toward the future. I am always checking out a lot of music and grew up listening to a lot of different styles as well, but there were several artists whose influence is very present on this album. Marvin Gaye is huge presence because of the way he was able to talk about so many different things: war, spirituality, love, sex, nature, etc, but there was always a sense of romanticism and humanity in it. Naturally the “What’s Going On” album was a major point of reference. Fela Kuti, Prince, Parliament, J Dilla, Al Green are sounds that I reference as well. More specifically related to what I’m doing (being a bassist, singer, and songwriter), Meshell Ndgeocello is someone that very much inspired and influenced my direction. She’s also from DC and I actually knew her father growing up.

Was your approach to the bass parts on this album different from your previous solo recordings?

My approach was very different on this album. I’ve never really been concerned with making “bass” records; my focus has always been on the writing and the overall vibe. That was very much the case for this album. In a sense I felt like I just happen to be the bassist on this album; what I mean is that there was so much more of a bigger picture that I was dealing with; the overall concept, the songwriting, my singing, the orchestration, arrangements and overall production, the sonic element, etc. There isn’t even a bass “solo” until the last minute of the album! My bass playing throughout the album was only to serve the songs as best as I could.

You handle most of the singing on the album. Did that change how you worked in the studio and how you approached building songs? Did you go into it feeling confident about your voice?

I actually didn’t originally intend on singing on this album. I had originally planned to have different guest vocalists come in and sing the songs, but I was encouraged to sing by Jose James (who co-founded the new independent label on which this album was released) after he heard one of the demos of the new material. As I thought about it more and gained more and more confidence in the idea of me being the frontman vocalist, I began to write more songs with my voice in mind, songs I knew I would have to sing. This was the first time that I’ve recorded vocals for an album, so there was definitely a level of uncertainty and nervousness, but it also gave me (and engineer/ co-founder of Rainbow Blonde, Brian Bender) an odd sense of freedom and experimentation because there was no point of reference or preconceived notion of what my voice was “supposed” to sound like. It was like working with raw clay. Bender was great to work with and gave me a lot of confidence in what I was doing as well while helping me to develop a sound and sense of direction.

Will you be touring in support of this album, and if so, what will the band layout look like?

Yes we will be touring! We have dates in NY, DC, Boston, LA, SF, Santa Cruz, Japan and working on more! The band is primarily 5-6 pieces (myself on bass/vocals, drums, guitar, keys, sax, percussion + special guest vocals on some dates). We even have a string section on a couple dates as well!

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