Talking improvisation, brass, and leading Funky Nation with Big Sam Williams


Big Sam Williams is not new to the jam circuit. In fact, he has been on it since he was fresh out of high school. His career began with Dirty Dozen Brass Band through whom he was formally introduced to the heavyweights of the scene. Several years later, he branched off to pursue his ultimate goal, to be the leader of Funky Nation. 

Now with four albums under their belt and a fervent following in their own right, Big Sam’s Funky Nation is gaining notoriety as being the go-to ensemble for any event or person who needs not guess at whether or not there will be a good time. Self-coined "not your dad’s brass band," this quintet is taking their party to places as vast as the HBO series Treme and festivals such as Bonnaroo by funky storm.

Always met with resounding approval, the group whose goal seems to be garnering as many residents of their Funky Nation as possible is well within reach of accomplishing the amassing of nothing short of a legion. 

It is quite obvious that Big Sam enjoys every moment of what he does. He soaks up every ounce of energy from whichever crowd he finds himself in front of and spews it right back to them through his trombone. His demeanor is one that is inviting and affable. Their shows are parties in the classic New Orleans sense and nothing about them is falling on deaf ears. With their fourth record out, King of the Party, it is clear that this outfit has no plans of slowing down anytime soon. 

Big Sam took a moment to talk with Honest Tune.  Here is how the caper came down…

Honest Tune: You won the award for most sit-ins on this past Jam Cruise. Did you have any favorite players to sit in with or make the acquaintance of anyone that you had previously not played with?

sam1.jpgBig Sam Williams: Definitely. One was Zach Deputy. He is a bad dude. I had heard a lot about him and on the cruise I had a chance to meet him. I think that I had sat in with everyone else before because I have been knowing them for awhile. Then there was another [highlight] that was of course the Maceo Parker thing because I have been knowing Fred (Wesley) for about eight years now and he is like my idol and it was great to be able to jam with him but also with all of the original JBs (James Brown horn section), Maceo, Pee Wee Ellis, and Fred all at one time on one stage was a treat to me. Plus I had never met Maceo or Pee Wee before so to be able to jam with those three guys and the Lettuce crew was just amazing and mind blowing. That was surreal.   

HT: The direction of the jam scene is beginning to be tilted in various areas. Dub-step is one of these and so is funk. You are talking about players like Fred Wesley who have been in the music world since the fifties. It is finding quite the resonance in young generations, some of which did not even have parents of age during that time. Why do you think that funk has found an even deeper home in the present jam world even more so than in the past?

Sam: First of all, people just like good music no matter the style as long as it makes them feel good. The other thing is that a lot of like Grateful Dead songs and Phish songs have root in the style or have even covered songs from old R&B and funk bands.  Even Widespread Panic will go there with a Stevie Wonder song or something like that and get funky. Another example is (Grateful Dead/Rolling Stones cover) "It’s All Over Now " which is a Bobby Womack song that they took and changed up and added some blues element to it. So a lot of it is people just going back to the roots of where a lot of this music actually comes from. You know, you hear a lot of people playing "Red Hot Mama" that is of course Funkadelic and when you listen to a live version by Funkadelic, you can see where some of the sounds of the jam bands came from. So I think it is good that people now are just starting to realize that a lot of the bands in the jam band scene are coming out of that same key and the younger people are starting to develop an appreciation for the old school funk and giving it its recognition that it deserves.

HT: There is also just that love for improvisation and there really is not anything on an improvisational level that really mimics what you funk guys do. The way that you, particularly horn players, are able to come in, sit in, and roll with it. Is that an acquired thing for you or is it more or less of a natural ability?

sam4.jpgSam: Really it is both. Of course you have to have some type of natural ability and you have to be able to enhance that ability. That is where practicing comes in. You know, you look at most horn players and they like to play in Gb flat. So when you are stepping in with somebody, like I mentioned Zach (Deputy), he might be playing in A but he tunes a little bit differently. So for me, I have a slide so I can play in between that note and be able to be on that right page with him. Then you might hook up with JoJo (Hermann) from Widespread and he might be playing some songs in E or A and a horn player is not used to that so that is where the ability has to be there to be able to hear where the band is going and be able to roll with it.     

HT: What has it been like to break out of the more anonymous role as a player in Dirty Dozen and into a role as a front man?

Sam: It has been great. Luckily a lot of people remember me from Dirty Dozen. It took awhile for me to get back out on the scene because having your own band and doing everything from scratch is hard, very hard actually. But it has been great but it is complicated at the same time because you gotta keep a band together and keep your music tight and be sure that you’re working all the time. Me, I am a people person so if I am out and I see somebody in the street and they speak, I am always going to speak back so it has been good for me because I am able to talk to me as they recognize me more.   

HT: Along those lines, you have managed to successfully cross and break down typical barriers between artist and concertgoer. Why is it important to you to walk through any crowd you find yourself playing for in typical NOLA parade fashion? A lot of artists simply are not comfortable with that level of interaction but you seem to not only be comfortable with it but to just bask in it.

sam2.jpgSam: Yeah I mean I come from New Orleans so I am embracing where I come from. So I am going to get out there and rock out and those two worlds just go together for me. I mean I am not just going out there just to do it. I feel the music.  So when I am up there or out there dancing, which is 99.9% of the time, it is for no other reason than that I am feeling it.

HT: And your shows tend to resemble a party more than a concert for the most part. What do you feel it is about your sound that encourages people to get up and move?

Sam: You know with us, it is a pretty loose vibe. We are not uptight with our music. We just let it all hang out. And just like you were saying earlier about improvisation, we improvise a lot on stage and people may not even know it because our trumpet player Andrew Baham and I have been playing together since like high school. We came up playing together and we have been knowing each other for a long time now so we already know what each other is about to do.  We just look at each other and we know. On stage we are just like one big family. We just don’t tame our music and I think that is felt.  

HT: On your latest record, how did improvisation play a role in the crafting of it?

Sam: A lot. Lately we have been getting into a lot of different effects on our horns. So on the album, people may be thinking that they are hearing a guitar and it may be me or our trumpet player. That has only added to the ability to improv and we are improvising all over it. I mean, we have a form going on and we know where we are going. It is an album so you gotta know something. Otherwise it would just be a mess. But once we have like the core of the music down, we have the ability to improvise all the way through it. Even Eric (Vogel) on the bass, like he’ll play the bass line but in between us singing something or playing something, he will be in there adding a little something else. But it is never too much or cluttered.  

sam6.jpgHT: Your current level of momentum is high. To what do you attribute this to?

Sam: I believe it is a number of things. I have been doing this thing for awhile now. I will be 29 next month and I was playing for Dozen when I was 18. I ended up leaving that group when I was 23 or 24 to pursue this band full time.  But playing with The Dozen, I got to play with Widespread Panic and got to hang out with those guys a lot. I got to jam with Karl Denson, Gov’t Mule, and String Cheese Incident. So basically every band that is still out now I got to jam with when being with Dirty Dozen. And the Dozen toured 200 or so days out of the year. So all of those days with Dirty Dozen and doing my own thing along with hustling, playing with Allen Toussaint and playing with Elvis Costello is all just starting to add up right now and all of those things are now paying off.  

HT: It has created a perfect storm for success and congratulations are definitely in order.

Sam: Thank you man.

HT: Being close to the beginning of a new year, I would be remiss to not ask you where you see yourself and Funky Nation going this year.

Sam: I mean you always want to get your music across to more fans and more people and gain more success. That is what we are striving for. We want to be one of those bands when we come to your town, even if it is on a Tuesday night, that you are definitely coming out to that show because you know that you will have a good time. Like Karl Denson. He can go anywhere he wants and pack the house and people love and appreciate it. We just want people to know that we bring a good time. We appreciate the people who come out and we want them to know that.  

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