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Ben Williams: Coming of Age

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Though he wrote much of his 2011 debut, State of Art, bassist Ben Williams’ new album, Coming of Age, is really his arrival as a composer. Nine of the disc’s 11 tunes are his, and they attempt (and accomplish) some tricky stuff. But he wraps these ideas in melodies made of short phrases-not to mention strong, funky grooves-that are easy to remember and impossible to resist.

“Strength and Beauty,” among the album’s best tunes, illustrates its crafts visible and latent. It’s so produced it feels at first like smooth jazz, with a theme of long guitar and tenor saxophone notes (courtesy of Matthew Stevens and Marcus Strickland, respectively). Even the rhythm section (Williams, pianist Christian Sands and drummer John Davis) is glossy. It takes some digging to hear first the funk waltz-an unusual concept in itself-then the density of the syncopation therein. Similarly, the heavy effects on Stevens’ short guitar solo can obscure how substantial it is, although there’s no escaping the meatiness of Williams’ tough-timbred bass solo. On the opposite path, the taut, wily soprano sax melody of “Forecast” leavens its demented salsa rhythm. The centerpiece, “Toy Soldiers,” is interpreted twice, as military march and hip-hop track; both are intoxicating.

The musicians and improvisations shouldn’t get short shrift. As mentioned, Williams and Stevens do superlative solo work, the former on both electric and upright bass. Strickland is an excellent soloist as well, leaning toward the same short phrasing that Williams writes. Sands, meanwhile, is the stealth star of the show, his stack of glorious piano solos paralleled by his gorgeous obbligati. In the end, however, it’s Williams’ funk-, R&B- and hip-hop-infused writing that elevates Coming of Age into superior territory.

Originally Published