LIVE: Ben Williams & Sound Effect @ Skidmore’s Zankel Music Center, 7/7/15
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu, Andrzej Pilarczyk
“I always get nervous playing in front of students,” bassist Ben Williams admitted to the full house at Skidmore College’s Zankel Music Center in Saratoga Springs. He smiled down at the three rows of Skidmore Jazz Institute attendees at the front of the stage, adding, “Because you listen to every note!” God knows the students – and the crowd, come to that – had a lot to listen to. Williams isn’t one of those players that just plays a few notes and lets them hang in the air for your perusal. We’re talking one of the most aggressive bassists I’ve ever seen, on either acoustic or electric, and he played both in a killer set that showed his skills as a composer, arranger and leader are right up there with what he can do with his instrument.
Most of the music came from Williams’ most recent Concord release Coming of Age, but the opening “Fly Or Die” (one of several surprising covers on the evening, this one from Pharrell Williams’ early-career band N*E*R*D) was part of a release by the all-young-lions outfit Next Collective. Williams seemed to set the opening riff, but then promptly went into free-form mode with drummer John Davis, who had a stellar moment in the clear on brushes before Williams and the band dropped on it like a hawk on a squirrel. Reed wizard Marcus Strickland worked the melody with his soprano sax, and then guitarist Matt Stevens played the first of many tight, muscular solos. Stevens’ guitar was the difference-maker in Skidmore Jazz alum Christian Scott’s early bands, and he’s definitely set to play that role in Sound Effect.
There was a pause, and then the band went back to the initial melody as Victor Gould switched from piano to Fender Rhodes and simply set sail. We’ve had the privilege of watching Gould grow as a player, both with the Michael-Louis Smith Quintet and (most recently) with Joe Barna’s Sketches of Influence. In all those instances, though, Gould kept it acoustic. It takes the right kind of touch to make a Rhodes glow the way it should, and Gould definitely has that touch, adding light and air to “Fly.” Despite being the Rhodes nut as I am, Gould’s acoustic work was so profoundly beautiful, whether playing rubato on the intro to “Dawn of a New Day” or bringing both sorrow and celebration to the continually rising closer “Toy Soldiers.” He was the perfect foil for Strickland and Stevens, cooling the temperature even as he adjusted it to suit his own instrumental needs.
It’s been too many years since I’ve seen Strickland play live. In that time, he’s created his own label Strick Muzik, which has put out towering discs by both himself and brother/drummer E.J. Strickland. Williams has worked with both brothers, so having Marcus appear on Coming of Age only makes sense. Then again, who wouldn’t want the services of one of the best reed players on the menu? Strickland alternated between tenor and soprano sax throughout the set, and while his tenor work was simply amazing, his soprano sax left me absolutely breathless, particularly on the last movement of “Toy Soldiers,” driven on by Davis’ powerful martial beat. Davis has the tight snare sound of Terreon “Tank” Gully, but does even more than Gully to accent and expand whatever’s playing I front of him.
While Williams’ aggression puts him apart from the pack, it was his hushed work in the clear towards the end of the 90-minute set that left the biggest mark. As the rest of the band left the stage, Williams said, “You’ll remember this if you were around in the ’90s…” He paused to smile down at the students. “Some of you were BARELY around in the ’90s!” After a long rubato exploration that left Zankel’s acoustics panting for breath, Williams went into Nirvana’s signature tune “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Nirvana covers aren’t foreign to jazz by any means, but most arrangements try to approach the nuclear energy Kurt Cobain’s trio pumped into everything they did. Williams went the other way, creating a poignant ode to an artist gone far too soon, and you could have heard a pin drop while he played it.
Ben Williams & Sound Effect played Lake George Jazz Weekend a couple of years ago, and I was suitably impressed. But a couple years is a long time in a band, and between the expansive new material and Williams’ additional experience as a leader, this group has bloomed on so many levels. For all the sweet sideman gigs Williams has got going, it’s my sincere hope that he keeps this project up and running, because it lets his full creative voice be heard in all its glory.