It's been more than six years since guitarist D.J. Williams' band came together in regular Tuesday night gigs at CafAc Diem. The shifting players settled into a solid sextet, the varied inspirations — rock, jazz and hip-hop among them — jelled into a signature sound. With a release party for his new CD “Eleven” set for the National on Dec. 18, Williams feels his Projekt is hitting its funky stride.
Over pho and Belgian ale at Mekong Restaurant, Williams clarifies some potential misapprehensions.
He's not a DJ. His name comes from his father, Donald Jeffrey Williams Sr., a globe-trotting, multilingual Sierra Leonean diamond appraiser for the legendary Harry Winston. And “Eleven” is not the band's 11th release. The title is from a conjunction of numerological associations: There are 11 tracks that took 11 months to record, it's D.J.'s favorite number, and the edgier context is the Spinal Tap invitation to crank the volume up to 11.
He didn't start as a guitarist either. He took classical piano lessons at 4. “In my family you learned to play music if you wanted to or not,” Williams says. Both his father and his mother (a Liberian with a doctorate in education) are accomplished musicians. “They knew that music opened a whole new way of thinking,” he says. His lessons expanded to include jazz piano and drumming, and played both trumpet and clarinet in school bands. He says he picked up guitar at 16 for a simple reason: “To get girls.”
On “Eleven,” the Projekt sound is built on bedrock funk overlaid with chorus horns, a mix that surprises with odd key modulations and rhythmic right angles. Lyrical stretches of jazz float above the propulsion. Williams's guitar stitches through the mix, occasionally rising in heroic solos with echoes of Hendrix, Ry Cooder or “Hot Rats”-era Zappa. The songs are all short enough to keep a sharp focus and varied enough to hold attention over the full 52 minutes, a rare feat.
Williams says it is his strongest record, the first where his band's sound is fully realized. It reflects a long path defined by musically omnivorous explorations. In high school, he was simultaneously playing guitar in a bluesy Pearl Jam and Nirvana grunge band and slamming out brutal beats as drummer for a hardcore band called Defcon One. He was an experienced performer by the time he left Richmond for Middle Tennessee State outside of Nashville.
Returning to Richmond after graduation in 2003, he teamed up with his sister's friend, saxophonist Gordon Jones, and drummer Dusty Simmons to cut his debut album, “Wrong Notes Right.” Williams turned a bravura open-mic performance at CafAc Diem into his long-running Tuesday night gig. Originally he was the consistent hub around which a revolving lineup of musicians shifted in a jam session.
Then the Projekt coalesced: The roles of Simmons and Jones evolved from frequent guests to permanent members. Regular bassist Brian Mahne shifted to keyboards to make room for bassist Todd Herrington. When trumpeter Mark Ingraham joined, Williams says, he had a great band that he would never have intentionally put together.
They've built a substantial East Coast following playing the jam band circuit, in tour loops north and south of Richmond. “I don't want to call them ‘hippie festivals' but you know what I'm saying,” Williams says. “You get one person liking you, they tell others and they all travel. It's a wild card; you bring that audience with you.” Building an audience on the road is a long-term career challenge. Based on “Eleven,” the D.J. Williams Projekt seems ready for the challenge. S
The DJ Williams Projekt will appear at the National at 708 E. Broad St. on Dec. 18. at 8 p.m. $10 in advance, $15 at the door. Everyone who purchases a ticket receives a copy of the band's new CD “Eleven.” For information, go to thenationalva.com.