Here we have the young acoustic/electric bassist Ben Williams debut album. Ben is a bassist hailing from DC who won the Thelonious Monk Competiton for bass in 2009 which won him this deal with the Concord Music Group. The award was well deserved because Williams really delivers but bass heads be cautioned this is not a flashy "bass feature record". This album features the cream of the under 40 crop of jazz musicians that are working on the NYC & international scenes. Iv likened this albums format to Jaco Pastorius's self titled debut album from 1976 that forever changed the way all bass was played from then on.
The main reason for this comparison is the diversity of the compositions here on State of Art, you've got everything from so called Nu Jazz, hip hop, straight ahead & a take on what was called third stream the mixture of jazz & classical with a string quartet consisting of two violin, viola & cello appearing on two of the eleven tracks. The music is a nice mixture of well known jazz and R&B thrown in with Williams originals of which there are four. The assembled cast of players are all from Ben's working experiences. The sax duties are handled by two of my favorite players working today Marcus Strickland on tenor & soprano & Jaleel Shaw appearing on alto on two tracks & a rare treat hearing Shaw play soprano on one tune. On piano & Fender Rhodes is the rising star Gerald Clayton a beautiful player that sounds to my ears like a modern day Wynton Kelly with shades of Herbie Hancock& Bill Evans. On guitar is Matt Stevens best known as the guitarist that's been on all Christian Scott's solo albums. Jamire Williams rounds out the core group on drums his playing is not to be missed! I believe Ben has captured the sound of what I call 21st century jazz, which simply put is the traditions & devices of old blended with the groove of hip hop & R&B, it makes for a very accessible sounding music that is artistically hip yet any layman that digs good music will find it enjoyable.
The album starts off with "Home"a Williams original, that is a hard grooving back beat driven tune with a rhythmicly intricate melody & ensemble interplay. Next up is a nice version of Woody Shaw's "Moontrane" that features Clayton on fender rhodes with the band supplying a nice R&B feel. Track three is one of my favorites it's pure hip hop featuring emcee John Robinson flowing over a fat groove made with percussion conga & bongo, Christian Scott guesting on trumpet grooving hard on open horn,it's a real treat to hear Scott just blast over a sparse vamp such as this that allows him some room to stretch, Jamire lays down a fat drum groove with a vamp played by Clayton on Fender Rhodes with Williams laying down a latin feeling upright bass groove. This is titled "The Lee Morgan Story" & it's one of the coolest raps I'v ever heard in a hip hop song because John Robinson spins the tale of legendary hard bop trumpeter Lee Morgan from his birthday on 7/10/1938 to the end in NYC club Sluggs. Williams covers Michael Jackson's "Little Susie" but first Ben gives you a solo upright bass intro which shows us why he was the winner of the Monk competition for acoustic bass in 2009, his sound is very clear with cello like note definition & warmth. "Little Susie" features the string quartet to powerful effect with a stand out soprano sax performance by Jaleel Shaw who over two albums as a leader records very rarely on soprano & listening to Shaw's playing on the straight horn here I'm not sure why, I can only hope he picks it up more often. "November" is a Williams composition that brings us into latin bop zone spurred on by Etienne Charles percussion & the fleet fingered lines of guitarist Matt Stevens who is in a more traditional bag sonically from his work with Christian Scott, this tune is high octane all the way & features blazing solos by Shaw & Williams. Stevie Wonder's "Part Time Lover" definitely has some Christian McBride band influence particularly Sci-Fi era, it's a smooth medium tempo swinger that typifies the sound of much of todays best modern jazz,we are treated to some intense tenor sax blowing by Marcus Strickland. "Things Don't Exist" is the intense contemplative epic piece of this set & features great writing for the strings alongside elegant piano by Clayton with the melody given to Strickland on soprano a beautiful piece that is light & dark. "Mr. Dynamite" is the soul jazz feel good tune with a driving funky groove that also reminds me of Christian McBride with an awesomely funky bowed bass solo. The only so called jazz standard is the closer "Moonlight In Vermont" that is the only tune that features Ben on electric bass & all I'm going to say is this is one of the coolest treatments of this tune I'v ever heard. Well there you have it Ben Williams State Of Art in my humble opinion one of the best releases in the last ten years so check it out.