For Ben Williams, jazz has always been a hotbed for cross-pollination. Coming of age in what he refers to as the “golden era of hip hop” and raised on an early diet of classic and modern R&B, it was the vibrant music scene in his native Washington, DC that left the most lasting impression on the 34-year-old bassist. “It’s a very musical town full of great musicians with a special kind of soulfulness,” he explains. “We didn’t separate ourselves. A lot of the guys you’d see on the straight-ahead gigs were the same guys playing with the hip hop and R&B guys, and they’d come to our gigs, hang out and sit in with us. It was a very diverse environment.”
Coming up in that diverse environment has served Williams well, both as a composer and leader on two genre-defying solo albums [2011’s State of The Art and 2015’s Coming Of Age], and as an in-demand sideman for artists such as Pat Metheny, José James, Stefon Harris, and Steve Wilson. Currently, Williams’ thick acoustic tone and 360-degree musicianship are anchoring the rhythm section in alto sax legend David Sanborn’s band, alongside drummer Billy Kilson, and keyboardist Andy Ezrin. Having seen them twice in New York City recently, this writer can attest to the strength, sophistication, and sensitivity of this current “acoustic” Sanborn lineup: Williams, Kilson, and Ezrin breathe together like a single pulsating organism, and the 74-year-old Sanborn’s fiery alto playing is as crisp, powerful, and inventive as ever. (The band also features a trombonist, and I’ve witnessed spectacular performances from both Wycliffe Gordon and Michael Dease in the front line.)
Though they have yet to produce a proper studio recording, the new band is being deployed to great effect on Sanborn Sessions, the iconic musician’s exciting new web series. Filmed at Sanborn’s home in upstate New York, the show presents soulful, intimate performances and candid conversations with an eclectic mix of musical guests including Michael McDonald, Terrace Martin, Charlie Hunter, Bob James, and Cyrille Aimee, all backed up by Williams, Kilson, and Ezrin (plus guitarist Jon Herington and vocalist Alice Soyer). Those of us are who are old enough to remember Night Music, the ultra-hip music show that Sanborn hosted on NBC from 1988-1990, already trust the altoist to curate a program that covers the full spectrum of American musical excellence. Sanborn Sessions picks up where Night Music left off, albeit in a more casual setting and with the freedom afforded by the internet age.
The first episode of Sanborn Sessions, featuring vocalist Kandace Springs, premiers on December 3rd. Over the phone from a DC-bound Amtrak train, Williams fills us in on his role as the bassist on the show and more, including his forthcoming solo album (due in February 2020).
How did you come to join the Sanborn band?
I’ve been a fan of Dave’s, like most people, for a long time. We first met through Billy Kilson; we had done some work together with (pianist) Billy Childs in 2015. His regular band that he’d been touring with had more of an electric sound; I think Dave had this idea for an acoustic band, and Billy Kilson suggested me. I had had a lot of experience even as an upright player playing on a lot of projects that incorporated funk and hip hop, so I guess I was a good fit for Dave.
When and how did he approach the band about Sanborn Sessions?
He’s kind of been talking about this for a few years. We always rehearsed at his house, been there many times and it’s such a beautiful place, beautiful area, love hanging out there. So we did a couple of sessions, kind of what we always do there, only now we turned the cameras on.
Obviously the nature of video production doesn’t allow for the same amount of preparation time as a gig or a tour, where you’re rehearsing for a couple of days or weeks.
More like a couple of hours! But there’s such a high level of musicianship that it all comes together pretty fast. He’ll let us know two days before who the artist is, so we do as much preparation as we can before we get there. But as a group, as a band, we pretty much put it together the day of. We all toss in our ideas and try different things; it’s very collaborative between the artists and the band. David is very open to everybody’s ideas. We may do a few takes, not a whole lot. We’re recording it all together, maybe three times for some editing things.
On , Sanborn created a relaxed musical environment that seemed to stimulate exciting interplay among the musicians. What did he do to create that atmosphere on ?
You know, I feel like it’s almost what he doesn’t do, what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t really tell us to do much, as far as specific things. He knows that we’re familiar with the people that we’re working with. I think the beauty of it is watching it unfold, how we’re all going to sound together, that process. I felt really comfortable; the atmosphere really didn’t feel that much different from a normal rehearsal, whether there were cameras there or not. That’s the beauty of the show, and I think in that sense Dave is sort of a true jazz artist.
I’ve been really inspired watching how Dave operates, both on and off the bandstand. I almost feel like I’ve learned as much talking to him as I have playing. Getting to be around him, and understanding his whole approach to music…he’s very open minded, and he’s looking to do the same work that I’m looking to do. He really lets everybody in the band be themselves. A lot of the tunes we’re playing in his band, he’s been playing for like, 30 years, and he knows that if I play it it’s gonna feel a little different just because of what I bring it to it. So he really lets us find ourselves.
Were there any challenges musically during the production, any performances you had trouble getting comfortable with?
I think every artist had a different approach. As you can see it’s a very diverse lineup, but you kind of know going in which hat to put on, and not to be tied to how you think of the person; and you have to embrace the challenges. For example, Charlie Hunter plays an instrument that is half guitar and half bass, and they had us play together. So one of us would have to get into the upper range; stuff like that.
Tell us about your upcoming solo album?
It’s definitely very eclectic. In short, it’s a socially and politically driven album called I Am A Man. The title is inspired by the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers protest. I’m actually singing on it! I wrote a bunch of the songs, and it has more of an R&B/soul vibe.
It seems like the best jazz players today have a deeper awareness and appreciation of R&B, soul and hip hop; do you feel as if the music is becoming more of a melting pot?
I feel like it’s been that way from the beginning. If you go back to the bebop era, there was a lot of afro-cuban influence, plus rhythm and blues started to happen, and then when rock started to happen artists like Miles and Herbie would incorporate that. So I feel like jazz music has always been a reflection of what’s going on around us, and this happens to be what’s going on around us at this time. I think what’s special about the whole hip hop thing is that there’s already a lot of cross-pollination; a lot of the producers are like crate-diggers and sampling a lot of old fusion records and obscure R&B records!
brought an eclectic sensibility to TV in the late ’80s, and now continues that tradition on the web. Do you view the new show as a unique opportunity to present sophisticated music to a wider audience?
I feel like this is a very fertile moment we have right now; it’s a beautiful thing. There are a lot of ways for music to be heard and for artists to reach out to their public: social media, everything, it creates more avenues for everybody. I think it’s a great period that we’re in.