Exclusive: Ben Williams Delivers Jazz Cover of Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'

David Todd McCarty
Ben Williams

"When you call it jazz, people start to expect a certain thing," says bassist Ben Williams on his upcoming sophomore album Coming of Age. Jazz fans and fellow musicians, however, are certainly enthusiastic about the work of the 30-year-old bandleader. Since winning the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute Competition in 2009, Williams already has a Grammy (for his work with jazz guitar legend Pat Metheny) and a critically-acclaimed debut (2011's State of Art) under his belt. 

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"There's a little bit of sophomore jitters," Williams tells Billboard. The bassist, whose record deal with Concord was part of his Monk Competition win, says he "had no expectations for the first record...It could have just been here today, gone tomorrow and nobody would ever even care." But State of Art resonated with jazz and non-jazz audiences alike, earning accolades from Downbeat as well as six weeks on the Jazz Albums chart

Coming of Age shows Williams continuing to make accessible, unpretentious music that showcases his enviable jazz chops (along with Metheny, he's played with everyone from Wynton Marsalis to Chaka Khan) as well as his diverse influences. "I'm not trying to necessarily change the game or defy all expectations, but I'm just going into it with open mind and open heart," Williams says. "I've been influenced by a lot of different styles of music. I like to embrace all these different styles, and just kind of put it all in the bowl and mix it up."

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Williams' unaccompanied bass solo version of Nirvana classic "Smells Like Teen Spirit" started as nothing more than a practice room exercise. To get his solo bass chops together, Williams "would try to figure out how to play certain songs, just on the bass." "Teen Spirit," according to Williams, is "just one of those great songs that kind of transcended race and age and styles." One of the defining tracks of the early 90's, the bassist says, "I can still see [the video] in my head every time I play it." 

"Some songs just lay a little better [on the bass] than others," Williams continued (upright bass is not exactly an instrument known for easy fluidity). He "was just messing around one day, practicing, and I tried to play ["Smells Like Teen Spirit"] and was like, 'Oh, ok -- this works.'" Listen to his version exclusively on Billboard:

Ben Williams' Coming of Age comes out April 21, and is available for preorder on Amazon.