He's no Beltway insider. But in a way, jazz bassist Ben Williams owes his career to the politics of Washington, D.C.
While growing up in the District, his mother, Bennie Barnes-Williams, worked for U.S. Rep. John Conyers. The Democrat from Michigan happens to be a huge jazz fan, as well as a noted advocate for the art form, and when the 6-year-old Ben accompanied his mother to her boss' well-appointed office one day, he stumbled upon a massive, curvaceous, wooden string instrument in the corner.
Fast-forward some 20-odd years, and Ben Williams is a rising jazz star. He won the 2009 Thelonious Monk Competition — held at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. — and (literally) went home to his mother with a recording contract for his debut album. State of Art was released this summer, and for a release party, he came down from his New York apartment to play two nights in D.C., stopping by the NPR Music offices in the process.
Williams and his band gave us two songs, both from the new record. The second was a calming, meditative ballad called "Dawn of a New Day," with the good manners of cloth on a drum head and tinkling piano. But the first tune — that's where the District comes bubbling up. First, the guitar (Gilad Hekselman) and drums (John Davis) lay down an aggressive, snappy foundation. The bass and electric keyboard (Christian Sands) fill out the polyrhythms. That groove, with its snappy hip-hop flavor, feels at home cruising down Georgia Avenue, then turning right on U Street NW, the historic African-American commercial district of Washington. Then the saxophone (Marcus Strickland) enters, and it's game on.
On the day of our show, Williams' band arrived before he did — he'd come to town a day early to spend time with his family. So while Bennie was piloting her son down from Northeast D.C., the other musicians jocularly jammed on J Dilla beats and the saxophone riff from George Michael's "Careless Whisper." (It was great, actually.) Once Ben Williams arrived, we rushed him upstairs, at which point he tuned up his bass and launched right into that first tune. Not surprisingly, it's called "Home."
- "Dawn Of A New Day"
John Poole, Tucker Walsh (cameras); edited by Michael Katzif; audio by Kevin Wait; photo by Emily Bogle/NPR