Ben Williams: State of Art

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.