Blue notes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 August, 2011, 12:00am


Ben Williams' debut album on Concord has been issued with much fanfare. Whether this is because the record company thinks it has a major talent on its hands, or because its marketing department reckons he's the male answer to Esperanza Spalding, is less clear. Either way, it is a commercially and carefully balanced exercise, which is not to say there is not good music here.

But it's not Williams' recorded debut per se. Concord has kept the bassist busy in the studio more or less since he won the 2009 Thelonious Monk International Competition in the double bass category - a remarkable achievement - but it is his first outing as a leader.

'I'm trying to interpret the times,' Williams says, explaining the title, State of Art, 'to represent what's going on today'.

Well, up to a point. State of Art is a jazz-based album with just enough R&B, hip hop and classical touches for there to be something for everybody, but probably not enough to satisfy anybody. Take The Lee Morgan Story. This is the most hip hop track, for which a rapper called Emcee John Robinson recites a crass account of the life of the great trumpeter. However, some money was spent on bringing Christian Scott in to play some fine Morgan-inspired trumpet, which makes the listener wish the rapper would shut up. Eventually he does, and Scott takes the track out instrumentally. That bit doesn't last long enough.

Most tracks are better. Williams has written several good tunes, and a strong band including saxophonists Jaleel Shaw and Marcus Strickland, and a Pat Metheny-influenced guitarist named Matthew Stevens balance Williams' bass solos sensitively.

There is some tasteful ensemble work from the rest of the rhythm section, keyboardist Gerald Clayton, drummer Jamire Williams and percussionist Etienne Charles, and a couple of stand-out tracks from the group as a whole.

An interesting tension is introduced into Stevie Wonder's undemanding pop tune, Part-Time Lover, and a Michael Jackson song called Little Susie provides Williams with his stand-out bass feature of the album, but for a leader he keeps his virtuosity well in rein. Moonlight in Vermont, on which he switches from acoustic to electric bass, is perhaps the album's most genuinely adventurous arrangement.

The potential here will likely be more fully realised next time.

Take Three

Three landmark albums by jazz bassist bandleaders.

Mingus Ah Um (1959, Columbia): this really did 'reinterpret the times'. Charles Mingus at his most angrily political with Fables of Faubus, on an album which includes two of his oft-covered compositions, Better Git It in Your Soul and Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, his elegy to Lester Young.

Jaco Pastorius (1976, Epic): Pastorius' virtuosic version of the bebop standard Donna Lee, accompanied only by Don Alias' congas, served notice the electric bass was now a frontline jazz instrument. Its all-star cast includes Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Michael Brecker.

Third Plane (1977, Original Jazz Classics): bassist Ron Carter with fellow Miles Davis Quintet alumni Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams, reviving their 1960s rapport in arguably the strongest of Carter's recordings as a leader.