Ben Williams
State of Art
Concord Jazz

Yes, State of Art is an audacious title for any musician’s debut album. But the CD, the first under D.C. native Ben Williams’ name as a leader, largely lives up to the hype. Williams, a mainstay in Stefon Harris’ band and winner of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition for double bass in 2009, has assembled a simpatico group of excellent supporting players for a lively set of music drawing from his own compositions and sources as eclectic as Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder.

The aforementioned covers are given fresh readings: Wonder’s “Part-Time Lover” is light and airy, with tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland and guitarist Matthew Stevens sharing the melody. “Little Susie” opens with Williams’ unaccompanied derring-do, leading into a tricky funk-edged groove with Stevens, drummer Jamire Williams and pianist Gerald Clayton followed by the arrival of a string quartet and, out front, Strickland on soprano. The bassist shifts into hip-hop terrain with “The Lee Morgan Story,” an infectious bit of bio telling with rapping by emcee John Robinson and a guest spot from boundary-pushing trumpeter Christian Scott.

It’s telling that the sole standard here, “Moonlight in Vermont,” is freshened up with an open, ECM-style interpretation, with Williams on flickering electric bass underscoring guitar and piano leads. No less intriguing are Williams’ own compositions, including funk-driven opener “Home”; the harmonically quick-shifting “Moontrane,” which opens up for the bassist’s exploratory, fleet-fingered solo; and “Mr. Dynamite,” which handily splits the difference between classic soul jazz and James Brown, also slipping in a bit of bowing wizardry.

Originally published in September 2011

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