Known for his work in the Pat Metheny Unity Band, and the Next Collective, Ben Williams is one of those artists who represent the fresh wind that has been blowing through jazz in recent years. For the promotion of his sophomore album as a leader titled Coming of Age, Williams brought his Sound Effect quintet to Europe for an eleven-day tour. I caught the band playing A-Trane in Berlin, Germany, last month.
Dedicated to the release of Williams’ new album, the gig was almost exclusively composed of original compositions. On stage, Williams’ songs have that quality that they succeed in acquiring a kind of audaciousness while retaining a chilled-out sort of subtlety. Williams’ natural skill as a leader plays a great part in achieving this combination of lyricism and straightforwardness. Both on the upright and electric bass, Williams performance is full of finesse and agility, while not showing off his virtuosity for the sake of it. What is more, Williams’ blind understanding with drummer John Davis provided a solid basis for the two sets.
Matt Stevens’ guitar, which has a certain directness to it, added both melody and rhythm to the band. While Stevens seemed a little restrained in the first set, his interpellations were more assertive in the second set as he played with a great sense of urgency. With each solo, Stevens gave the impression he has a very clear where he wants his sharp, yet harmonious lines to end. Piano prodigy Christian Sands excelled as he often echoed and mimicked the lines that Marcus Strickland and Stevens dropped – giving rise to an intelligent sort of dynamism. Meanwhile, Marcus Strickland, on soprano and tenor, proved once more to be a vital element of this band, as he navigated through the songs with twists and turns giving the show that extra edge and versatility.
Indeed, versatility seemed to be the catchphrase of the evening as Williams impressed the audience with a breathtaking seven-minute bass-only solo on the upright covering Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Covering a ’90s grunge-rock anthem in one of Berlin’s most intimate jazz bars with such delicacy is what really characterizes Williams’ music. The band ended the gig with the incredibly catchy “Home” from Williams debut album with Stevens laying down that oh-so-groovy guitar lick.
On the whole, Ben Williams and his Sound Effect found the right balance between thoughtfulness and funkiness and with that they demonstrated what twenty-first century jazz sounds like.