Ben Williams is an acclaimed Washington DC-born and-based singer/songwriter, bassist, composer, bandleader and highly sought-after collaborator. Williams graduated from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Michigan State University and The Juilliard School, winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition(now known as the Herbie Hancock International Jazz Competition) back in 2009 and a Grammy Award as a member of Pat Metheny‘s Unity Band. He has collaborated with an impressive and remarkably diverse array of artists including Wynton Marsalis, George Benson, Maxwell, Robert Glasper, Pharrell and a long list of others. (He also appeared in Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead.)
As a bandleader and composer, Williams has released two albums through renowned jazz label Concord Records — 2011’s State of Art and 2015’s Coming of Age. Slated for a February 7, 2020 release through Jose James‘, Talia Billig‘s and Brian Bender’s Rainbow Blonde Records, Williams third album I AM A MAN 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 a boldface type. “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 and inspire activism today, such as the Black Lives Matter and MeToo movements. But there’s multiple subtle meanings to the album’s title: as Williams said during his performance at the Rainbow Blonde Records NYC Winter Jazz Fest last week the album wasn’t a typical protest album; that it was thematically an exploration of the black male psyche.
Sonically, the album reportedly meshes past, present and future, as it seemingly draws from The Roots, Erykah Badu, Bilal, D’Angelo, Common, Roy Hargrove‘s RH Factor as well as Marvin Gaye‘s What’s Going On, Curtis Mayfield and others.
Williams plays both double bass and electric bass throughout the album’s material, singing lead vocals on almost every single song on the album. He’s joined by an accomplished backing band of collaborators that includes Kris Bowers (keys), David Rosenthal (guitar), Marcus Strickland (tenor sax, bass clarinet), Bendji Allonce (percussion), Keyon Harrold (trumpet), Anne Drummond (flute), Jamire Williams (drums) and Justin Brown (drums). The album also features a handful of songs with string arrangements performed by a string quartet — Justina Sullivan (cello), Celia Hatton (viola), Maria Im (violin) and Chiara Fasi (violin), and vocals from Kendra Foster, Muhsimah, Wes Felton and Niles.
The album’s first single is the cinematic “If You Hear Me.” Centered around an spacious and cinematic arrangement featuring a shimmering and soaring string arrangement, African polyrhythm, Williams’ plaintive and soulful vocals, the track manages brings to Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Landing on a Hundred-era Cody Chesnutt to mind. The album’s second single, fittingly released today is an atmospheric rendition of the civil rights-era classic “We Shall Overcome” that places the song’s timeless struggle and hope for a far better, more just world into a contemporary context: reminding the listener that the struggle of MLK, Malcolm X, The Black Panthers and others, is the same struggle as Black Lives Matter and other movements.
Williams will be embarking on a handful of live dates that includes a February 8, 2020 album release show at Nublu 151. Check out the live dates below.
2/8: New York, NY @ Nublu 151 (Album Release Show)
3/19: Washington, DC @ City Winery