The baddest new bassist on the block, Ben Williams steps forth from Juilliard by way of our nation’s capital with a point to make. State of Art, the title of his debut release, is just the exclamation point on a body of work that bodes well for the prospect of creativity as career choice. Sufferance and relative poverty included, if this kind of ingenuity is what exists at the other end of the spectrum, then the art world is in pretty good shape. Though Williams is taking his first major turn as front man, this venture to the fore can hardly be construed as a well-earned exercise in selfishness.
What you recognize very quickly is how important the voices of the other players are to Williams, who provides the foundation upon which melody and rhythm are undoubtedly edified. As a bassist, he is likely used to playing that role, but the two differentiations that make this debut effort stand out are how subtly good he is at showcasing the talents of others, and how well he manages to stand out despite what seems like a very deliberate choice to take the back seat on some tracks. What Williams may have discovered is a secret that some musicians miss; a spotlight is not necessarily synonymous with leadership. At no point does he allow his own talent to go unnoticed, which lends to the idea that he is indeed secure enough in his ability to work with the collective potential of his group in mind.
The album begins strongly with “Home”, a track that is ardent and very much concerned with the proliferation of minor chords and funk; this piece quickly becomes a clinic on the beauty in simplicity and gives a sly nod to the aesthetic of Williams’ homebrew, D.C. Go Go music. Whether playing within the the theme or out toward the other musical sensibilities informing it, Williams has melded his influences within jazz in some glaring but very satisfying ways. The track becomes less concerned with deviating from the familiar, and it is at that point within the several seconds before the song fades that Williams and his band display their brilliance.
Over the course of the entire recording, it becomes clear that Williams may have a habit of taunting you with his taste for texture, pocket breaks, and vibrant chords; imagine The Roots’ “Sandwiches” at about an eighth of the standard track length. This, if nothing else, is fuel for the fire that Williams’ band is building. The nuances of these compositions is what will sell albums, sell out shows, and keep patrons in their seats for fear of missing something during a performance. “Moontrane”, the second composition, is equal parts Coltrane and “Crush on You” – the remixed Lil’ Kim classic that exploded in the late 90’s. Foremost is a marriage of saxophones that is pretty phenomenal, if it is okay to be trite for a moment. Marcus Strickland and Jaleel Shaw parallel in the slightly competitive way that suggests they have a lot of fun onstage. The band quiets long enough for Williams to make waves with an unassuming solo; a huge asset being the amount of cool he adds to the group’s performance. Matthew Stevens rounds the track out with a beautiful series of guitar licks.
What is curious is whether Williams and his cohorts are aware of how effortlessly their performance expands into other genres, contracting back into jazz with very little attention to the formality of an official segue or some other sort of signifying departure. If Williams’ band is working within any discernible confines, they are likely to avoid acknowledging them publicly. Testing limitation by abandoning the idea altogether allows this band to work at pleasing their collective ear first. In doing so they infuse a healthy dose of reckless abandon into the creativity driving the effort. The project stands alone and is not beholden to the conservatism of specific definition, which is extremely important for any releases Williams and company have up their sleeves in the future.
“Lee Morgan Story” is an ode to the Sidewinder himself, speaking to the prolific life and untimely death of Lee Morgan with great charm, thanks in large part to the words of emcee John Robinson. “Dawn of A New Day” continues as the meeting of a contemplative moment and a sweet gesture. Channeling Mingus’ monologue at the start of “Hora Decubitus” in a roundabout sort of way, Williams offers the “Little Susie Intro” before the band delves into a very emotionally charged piece, with a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Little Susie”. The track moves from sparse bass riffs to a driving orchestral tour de force fronted by saxophone. Pain seeps through the track in a fashion similar to Terence Blanchard’s scoring of “When The Levees Broke”, Spike Lee’s post-Katrina opus. The standout amongst many bright spots in the composition is Gerald Clayton’s work on piano combined with the deliberate and equally adept hand of Jamire Williams on drums. By the end of this track, it is clear that none of the musicians playing on this album are rookies. Other standouts include “November” and “Moonlight In Vermont.”
“November” begins and ends at the helm of Williams’ bass as he plows through a stomping piano chord, propping the horns up quite nicely. “Moonlight In Vermont” is a bit eery and sounds ripe for the remixing talents of someone like Flying Lotus. Williams’ D.C. upbringing becomes an interesting footnote in this case, considering how much this track is reminiscent of the fellow District native, Me’Shell Ndegeocello’s sound. The last few tracks are where Williams and his mates make quick work of stretching their legs, getting comfortable, and showing the diversity of their chops – something it seems they have only just begun to do.
Words by Karas Lamb
Catch Ben Williams & The Sound Effect at Harlem Stage on June 29th. Details here.
Get your copy of State of Art here.