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.