Pat Metheny Unity Group bassist Ben Williams here with his band Sound Effect. Contemporary sounding and stylish from the off Coming of Age finds the Washington DC-born Michigan State University and Julliard alumnus Williams delivering his second album as a leader, three and a half years on from State of Art.

Featuring treatments of Nirvana’s 1990s grunge anthem ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ kept towards the end and soulstress Lianne La Havas’ much more recent song ‘Lost and Found’ here featuring an achingly moody cameo from trumpeter Christian Scott sequenced right in the middle of the album, original material of Williams’ includes the opener ‘Black Villain Music’, the mid-tempo mellowness of ‘Strength and Beauty’ that follows and ‘Half Steppin’,’ an early gem.

Williams also co-wrote ‘Voice of Freedom (For Mandela)’ which features neosoul vocalist Goapele, and other guests besides Scott are vibist Stefon Harris, on Williams’ tune ‘The Color of My Dreams,’ and rapper W. Ellington Fenton on the reprise of another Williams tune, ‘Toy Soldiers’. The title track is the very last tune a rare straightatead inclusion Christian Sands showing his modal pedigree even if it is slightly overshadowed by ‘Toy Soldiers,’ which is one of the big statement pieces of the album in two versions.

Williams uses double bass and switches to bass guitar at certain points on the album, and he’s equally accomplished on both. Joined by saxophonist Marcus Strickland putting his stamp on ‘Strength and Beauty,’ Christian Sands’ gently lapping piano part towards the end worth listening out for. Sands also plays Fender Rhodes and make no mistake this is not a stuck-in-the-past “classic jazz” bubble of a recreation with no concession to the times we live in. It doesn’t take someone playing Fender Rhodes to draw this out yet the contemporary dimension is also provided by additional synths from Masayuki ‘Big Yuki’ Hirano and also by the presence of guitar with Matt Stevens thickening out the textural base of the rhythm section.

John Davis on drums is a kind of a Chris Dave player at times and feeds in little hints towards beat displacement and the broken beat style (particularly on ‘Half Steppin’’) Dave is known for as well as more generally providing a driving soul or jazz-rock style when needed. Williams is also well aided and abetted by Etienne Charles who provides extra percussion.

The Lianne La Havas song has the most sumptuous production of all with extra strings added and Scott certainly plays a blinder here: could this be the New Orleansian’s ‘Time After Time’ moment?

It takes a while for the album heat to build to boiling point but when it does (on ‘Half Steppin’’ for instance) this is carefully controlled and hearing Williams play in the bands of Terence Blanchard and Pat Metheny a few times over the years it’s striking how he keeps his head under pressure even when he finds himself in the most complex of musical situations something that is also striking on this new album.

Coming of Age is nothing like the situation you’ll find Williams in on a Pat Metheny album. And I get the strong impression Williams wants to drill down into more soulful grooves on his own project here. And certainly this aspect of the album emerges firmly on ‘Voice of Freedom’ Goapele’s swooning emotive voice backed by some highly mobile grooves. ‘Toy Solders’ has the most composed feel of the first half of the album, the martial atmosphere of course fitting, the tune giving way for a significant double bass statement from Williams.

There is a tricksy driving latinate appeal to ‘Forecast,’ and again lots of propulsion: Strickland on soprano needing to show plenty of ingenuity as he ducks and dives around the drums and bass to develop his part under the nose of this sea of swirling rhythm and frenetic percussion.

The tender side of the album emerges most on the beginning of ‘The Color of My Dreams’ from Williams’ very first note on bass guitar (surely Marcus Miller would cast an envious glance in Williams’ direction hearing this?), vibist Stefon Harris then emphasising the effect and the overall sound enhanced by strings developing into a very dreamy cinematic space, Williams taking another choice bass guitar solo as the composition goes deeper in.

Produced by Concord senior A&R man Chris Dunn, who has worked with several of the players here in the Next Collective, and by Williams himself the album is a canny mix of material Williams taking a few risks along the way but rising to the occasion and completely nailing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’(interestingly a tune Robert Glasper too sometimes does).

The rap on the ‘Toy Soldiers’ reprise, an anti-war message song at the end with compelling lyrics written and sung by Wes Felton definitely has its attractive melodic side. Bass players… hear this record and beware: you might be spending a lot more time shedding.

Stephen Graham

Ben Williams, top, second left, with his band Sound Effect. Photo: David Todd McCarty. Above: a promo video issued by the label.