Ben Williams has a dark, righteous sound on an upright bass, and an almost liquid mobility through the fullness of his range. That much was established when he won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 2009, at 24.
His development since then has had more to do with composition, leadership and artistic vision. And while an album shouldn’t necessarily function as a progress report, Mr. Williams knew what he was doing when he named his new one “Coming of Age.”
It’s his second release as a solo artist. His first, “State of Art,” arrived in 2011, an admirable but slightly overdetermined declaration of intent. Over the last few years he has recorded and toured with the guitarist Pat Metheny, a role model of consuming focus. And Mr. Williams has pushed toward a more natural, less insistent strain of jazz modernity, in his writing and in the metabolism of his own group, Sound Effect.
“Coming of Age” is a sturdy showcase for that band, with Marcus Strickland on tenor and soprano saxophones, Matthew Stevens on electric guitar, Christian Sands on piano and John Davis on drums. (The same crew, with a few additions, will appear with him on Thursday at the Cutting Room.)
Mr. Williams, who produced the album with Chris Dunn, frames its stylistic breadth within a larger unity of sound. Still, his compositions range from postbop wind sprints (“Forecast”) to the go-go of his native Washington. (“Half Steppin’ ”). A cinematic ballad titled “The Color of My Dreams” becomes a concerto of sorts for the vibraphonist Stefon Harris.
Among the album’s other special guests are Goapele, singing her own lyrics in the chilled-out soul tune “Voice of Freedom (For Mandela),” and Christian Scott, whose muted trumpet threads a breathy melodic line through “Lost & Found,” the Lianne La Havas song. The poet and actor W. Ellington Felton turns up, more awkwardly, to rap some verses (and sing a chorus) on a track called “Toy Soldiers.”
That’s one of several small missteps, another being a solo bass interpretation of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a song that jazz musicians should no longer be mining for new truths. But Mr. Williams has his compass set, and it’s encouraging to think of this album as a marker, another checkpoint on the forward path.
01 - Black Villain Music
02 - Strength And Beauty
03 - Half Steppin'
04 - Voice Of Freedom (For Mandela)
05 - Toy Soldiers
06 - Lost & Found
07 - Forecast
08 - The Color Of My Dreams
09 - Smells Like Teen Spirit
10 - Toy Soldiers (Reprise)
11 - Coming Of Age
Revered by The Washington Post as “Successfully translating the musical pulse of his era into jazz,” Williams has secured a masterful selection of special guests featured on this project. They include renowned jazz trumpeter Christian Scott on the cover of Lianne La Havas’ melancholy “Lost & Found” that is draped by a string quartet, vibraphonist Stefon Harris on an original piece titled “The Color of My Dreams,” and emcee/poet W. Ellington Felton who leads the listener through “Toy Soldiers (reprise).” Williams also reconnects with American soul singer Goapele for a second collaboration with the pivotal anthem “Voice of Freedom (for Mandela).” Completing the vision is Williams band, Sound Effect, comprised of Marcus Strickland (tenor and soprano saxophone), Matthew Stevens (guitar), Christian Sands (piano and Fender Rhodes), Masayuki “Big Yuki” Hirano (synths and Fender Rhodes), John Davis (drums) and Etienne Charles (percussion).