Wednesday 1 April 2020

'I AM A MAN' by Ben Williams

In a wonderful win for the newly-formed Rainbow Blonde Records, bassist Ben Williams releases his brand new album 'I AM A MAN' gifting the relatively young label with an incredible treat.

As a solo artist, Williams' past projects 'State of Art' (2011) and 'Coming of Age' (2015) are indicative of the prodigious talent that Williams displayed from a young age - a graduate from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, awarded a Bachelor of Arts in Music Education from Michigan State University, a Master of Music in Jazz Studies at the Juilliard School and recipient of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Bass Competition in 2009.

And as a bassist, Williams has graced projects for a variety of contemporary jazz luminaries including Otis Brown, Harvey Mason, Carmen Lundy and Jazzmeia Horn, not taking into account Williams' contribution to the super group of the NEXT Collective (with Gerald Clayton and Kris Bowers amongst others) and their excellent covers album 'Cover Art' released through Concord Jazz, and then there's his contributions to the Grammy-winning Pat Metheny's Unity Group.

While the incredible work of Ben Williams has typically focused on his abilities as one of his generation's leading bassists, 'I AM A MAN' gives Williams the opportunity to showcase his abilities as a vocalist which is a role he seems to fill effortlessly.  The introduction of Williams as a vocalist very much contributes to a more honest and sincere recording particularly with regards to subject matter of such sensitivity.  'I Am a Man!' has long served as a declaration of civil rights and a declaration of independence against oppression.  More specifically, Williams poignantly uses this project to bring attention to the Memphis sanitation strike in 1968 over poor pay and hazardous working conditions.  The strike would go on to highlight the larger problems regarding inequality within Memphis with "I Am a Man!" emerging as a civil rights theme during this period.

Providing invaluable assistance to Williams throughout the album is a dream team of musicians including long-time collaborators like Marcus Strickland (saxophone), Kris Bowers (piano), Keyon Harrold (trumpet) and Jamire Williams (drums), each appearing on several tracks throughout, and there's vocal contributions from the excellent Muhsinah and Kendra Foster.  While Ben Williams albums have often found themselves rooted in jazz, Williams - aside from taking on the daunting role of lead vocals for the project - also embraces the opportunity to represent his music through different styles and aesthetics, incorporating elements of R&B, soul and even gospel-infused compositions on songs making tracks like 'High Road', 'Come Home' and the absolute album highlight, 'If You Hear Me' just stunning pieces of music.  Hip-hop is even brought into the mix through rappers Wes Felton and Niles appearing on 'March On' and Take It From Me' respectively.

'I AM A MAN' is Ben Williams's line-in-the-sand album.  It's a touching, earnest and heartfelt record that deserves your attention.

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