State of Art Ben Williams (Concord Jazz ) A local bass star attempts assess jazz—like, all of it.

Prize and Fall: A contest win paid for Ben Williams’ underwhelming album.

State of Art is aptly named. Bassist Ben Williams’ debut recording, a part of his prize for winning the 2009 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, is an assessment of jazz as a new generation raised on R&B and hip-hop etches its ambitions on the genre. Tellingly, the 25-year-old stocks the album with plenty of young rising stars: tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland, keyboardist Gerald Clayton, guitarist Matthew Stevens, drummer Jamire Williams, and percussionist Etienne Charles, with saxophonist Jaleel Shaw and trumpeter Christian Scott guesting. It’s a bold statement, full of big ideas. There are some glaring low points, but Williams mostly pulls it off.

It’s hard to argue, for example, with the D.C. native’s go-go-spiked arrangement of “The Moontrane.” Williams heightens the intrigue and allure of Woody Shaw’s melody by replacing its swing with his percussionists’ stomping, interlocked groove, while Stevens and Strickland’s guitar-sax harmonizing creates an eerie reverberation. Better still is the album’s other standard, “Moonlight in Vermont,” a delicacy for piano and faintly snarling guitar that suggests something between a Prince ballad and a post-rock soundscape. In between Williams elevates Stevie Wonder’s schlockfest “Part-Time Lover” by slowing and darkening it to match the (non-present) lyrics’ clandestine carnality.

The album’s highlight, however, is Williams’ original “November,” a fiery, immediately catchy tune with a Latin tang. Strickland, Stevens, and Clayton’s diaphanous salsa groove gives way to a thoughtfully spaced bass solo with well-crafted bursts of dramatic flair. Williams’ poise and accomplishment on his instrument are unquestionable.

His misfires, though, are big ones. “The Lee Morgan Story” is a rap based on the eponymous trumpeter’s life, but MC John Robinson’s lyrics feel less like an inspiring story than a sidebar in a jazz-history textbook. (Sample rhyme: “Sidewinder, first original composition/and most successful at the time in terms of chart position.”) Williams also covers Michael Jackson—a smart move given the ground he’s working. Unfortunately, he chooses “Little Susie,” one of Jackson’s least interesting, most overwrought tunes. The rendition is faithfully bombastic: strings, Shaw’s wailing soprano in lieu of vocals, and a separately tracked intro—an unfortunate recent trend on jazz recordings— but at least Williams sounds great on his solo-bass prelude, with a plainspoken tension the main body of the song could have used.

Fine, so Williams’ artistic assurance hasn’t quite caught up with his instrumental prowess and ambition. The bulk of State of Art, however, serves notice that he’ll get there.

Listen: Ben Williams

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Download: "Moontrane"

Our Readers Say

It seems as though more and more jazz writers are more concerned with voicing their opinions on music rather than giving a decent review (as we see here). The here writer is able to tell what he thinks is wrong about the CD and even goes as far as saying Bens' "artistic assurance hasn't caught up with his instrumental prowess and ambition". Meanwhile, the writer can't even tell the difference between a Tenor and Alto Saxophone. Jaleel Shaw is on "November", not Marcus Strickland. Like most jazz writers today, this writer needs to stick to the facts and stop trying to "prove" himself. I don't understand why so many jazz writers try to put themselves "above the artists" like they are the ones that spent so much time learning this music. Jazz writers today need to tudy the music, figure out what different instruments sound like, and then figure out how to give a decent review of the music without a biased opinion. Anyone can write their opinion of something, but it takes a bit more knowledge and dedication to be able to tell what you hear and let people come to their own conclusions about the music. Not the best review, but as the writer put it, hopefully "he'll get there".
@James - Uh, how should I put this? Music reviews are critiques of music in the "opinion" of the reviewer. Just as the review was critiqued in your opinion. I understand your frustration, however, you state that today's Jazz writers should write "without a biased opinion. How boring would that be? You give the reader and music lover little credit to make their own decisions about the art. We know that reviews are mostly opinions based upon knowledge and taste. All in all, I don't think this review was bad. I'm sure Mr. Williams understands that these review come with the territory. He should understand that they shouldn't influence his personal musical goals. I know a jazz musician who says he doesn't pay attention to reviews because if he believes the opinions expressed in the good ones, he would have to give credence to the bad ones as well. Makes sense to me.
there is a difference between a reviewer voicing an opinion (which is their one and only real job, now innit?) and telling the artist what they should have done. it seems that james is asking for credits not criticism.
It seems that more and more writers of letters to the editor are more interested in giving their opinion than using the written language in its proper manner. James Thompson is able to tell what he thinks is wrong with the Williams review, and even goes so far as to say Michael J. West needs to "figure out how to give a decent review of the music without a biased opinion." Meanwhile, his text is riddled with errors. He wrote tudy when he clearly meant study, improperly capitalizes Alto and Tenor Saxophone, and frequently puts his quote marks inside the punctuation. Anyone can criticize another person's writing, but it takes a bit more knowledge and dedication to do so in a manner that respects the English language. Mr. Thompson astutely pointed out where Mr. West misidentified the playing of a particular saxophone passage, but refuses to cite or give credit to the many strengths of Mr. West's review--including the upfront admission of where he is biased, which is very important to know about any reviewer. Perhaps in the future Mr. Thompson can acknowledge his own biases and lack of perfection; it would provide him with greater empathy and make his future letters to the editor more enjoyable.
To Mr West,
Ooops. I meant Meta Irony, Elke, and Just Saying... I don't write reviews for a living. I wrote my comments on a whim and didn't check them. They weren't published. I'm allowed to make a mistake. I also never said I'm perfect. I clearly stated that I felt that this writer didn't give a clear description of the music to me. He simply went on a tangent about what he thought was good or bad. I didn't walk away from the review thinking this writer knew what he was talking about as much as I did that he wanted to prove that he knew something about this music. I have the CD and think that the review wasn't accurate. I think that it's sad that someone that has never heard Ben Williams music has to read this as an introduction to it.
James Thompson--

Apparently it is easier for you to believe that I am Michael J. West deceptively writing under a pseudonym rather than someone else who has an honest disagreement with the tone and content of our letter.

Tell me the truth: Do you have a deep love for either jazz or hip hop? If so, can you honestly tell me that West's calling out of "The Lee Morgan Story" wasn't entirely appropriate? West also had many nice, specific things to say about "State of Art," praise which you chose to ignore in favor of trying to read his mind and motivation for writing the piece.

I own "State of Art," have listened to it a half-dozen times, and also possess hundreds of jazz and hip hop discs. I thought it was a fair review, besmirched by West's misidentification of the saxophonists, which you properly pointed out.

If you are going to rip a reviewer in the comments section, it is hypocritical to be so thin-skinned, and in denial, when a similarly critical approach is turned back on you. If you can't stand the heat, and all that.

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