EVEN THOUGH HE TOOK TOP HONORS at the 2009 Thelonious Monk International Bass Competition in Washington, D.C., Ben Williams admits he doesn’t entirely understand how anyone can compete at playing jazz. “In a big way, jazz is about individuality—how do you compare players?” the gruff-voiced 26-year-old asks from his family home in D.C. “Everybody has his own sound and approach.”
Williams wasn’t exactly unfamiliar with Monk Competition, which each year offers a cash prize or scholarship to the world’s brightest young jazz musicians; he works with pianist Jacky Terrasson, who won the award in 1993, and saxophonist Marcus Strickland, who took third place in 2002. “[Trumpeter] Ambrose Akinmusire won the competition a couple years before, and he’s a friend. Gretchen Parlato is also a good friend of mine, and she won the competition in 2004.” Still, he admits, “ I don’t know how they decide. It seems like a hard job to be a judge in that.”
It’s not hard to understand what gave Williams the advantage, however. Listen to State of Art, Williams’ solo debut, and you’ll hear an extremely capable player with a big, warm sound and a natural sense of swing. Regardless of whether he’s soloing or accompanying, his playing is almost compositional, conveying a deep understanding of a tune’s harmony and structure.
“To be a good jazz player, you really have to be a well-rounded musician,” he says. “My teachers had me learn every part of the song, not just the bass line. We’d dissect everything—learn the melody, how the form worked, how to understand the chords, what you could play over certain harmonies, and where they came from.”
As he tells it, Williams came to the upright bass almost by accident. When music class became an option in middle school, he had wanted to learn guitar. “But I mistakenly signed up for string class,” he says. When he learned he couldn’t transfer out, he decided to make do. “I picked up the bass—it looked cool,” Williams says. It also suited him; within a year he had outpaced his classmates.
Although he describes himself as a focused student, Williams says he never worried that imitating the jazz greats would inhibit his own growth. “If you have an original voice, it will come out. I don’t think any amount of study will hinder that. You just have to put yourself in the shoes of somebody really great.”
HEAR HIM ON
Ben Williams, State of Art [Concord, 2011]; Jacky Terrasson, Push [Concord, 2010]; George Benson, Guitar Man [TBD]; Stefon Harris & Blackout, Urbanus [Concord, 2009]; Marcus Strickland, Idiosyncrasies [SMK, 2009]; Marcus Strickland, Of Song [Criss Cross, 2009]
Basses Circa-1950 German upright, Fender American Deluxe Jazz Bass 5-string, Fender Jazz Bass
Strings Ken Smith or DR Strings
Rig Gallien-Krueger MB500 head and Neo 112 cabinet
Other Applied Music Technology upright bass microphone. “I try to use as much of the mic signal as I can. You spend hours in a practice room developing a sound, and when you get to the gig, you don’t want to lose all of that. You want people to hear what you hear.”