|Ben Allison and Think Free Layers of the City|
The bassist/composer Ben Allison is a rare breed, a multi-dimensional force. He has both the command of his instrument and the talent to write meaningful contributions to the jazz canon. His compositional acumen is inspired in part by his openness to explore popular and contemporary musical ideas and incorporate those ideas into his own brand of improvisational music. He is a dedicated educator, teaching at the New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music as an adjunct professor since 1996. His discography as a leader of now twelve releases, is a timeline of artistic development and experimentation. He is an in-demand sideman and has been recently heard on pianist Pete Malinevrni's fine album Heaven. In his trio with guitarist Steve Cardenas and saxophonist Ted Nash, he has explored the music of Jim Hall and Jimmy Giuffre on Quiet Revolution. All the while he has been a steadfast voice for the music; a founding member of the Jazz Composer’s Collective and its Artistic Director for its thirteen-year span; a prominent advocate for artist’s rights and now President of the New York Chapter of the Recording Academy, the sponsors of the Grammy Awards. He is also a record producer with his own label Sonic Camera records.
With such a busy and prolific schedule, it is encouraging to see that Allison has released a new album with his group Think Free, titled Layers of the City, which includes longtime collaborator Steve Cardenas on guitar, fellow Collective member Frank Kimbrough on piano, the lyrical trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and the tasteful drummer Allan Mednard. The album contains six original Allison compositions and one group free improvisation. This album was made possible by a successful Pledge Music campaign that Allison started sometime back in November of 2016. It is noteworthy that more and more talented artists have found, through their followers, an egalitarian source of economic support that permits them the freedom to pursue their artistic goals-a promising development.
The music is distinctively modern, sometimes brash, sometimes atmospheric, with Allison favoring jazz-styled melodies over drone-like rhythms. The opener “Magic Number” is a re-working of a John McLaughlin song, a favorite of mine, originally titled “Argen’s Bag” and latter re-named “Follow Your Heart.” Allison’s bass lines are full and plump as he pulses the 11/8 blues based riff. Pelt’s viscous trumpet lines hang in the air like billowy clouds of spun cotton candy suspended in space. Cardenas’s guitar sings along with slinky lines and delicately picked harmonics and Kimbrough and Mednard play with sublime sparseness. A fine modern re-imagining of a song originally aired in 1972.
“Enter the Dragon,” an eight-minute lead up to an eruption, begins with Kimbrough brushing piano strings before Allison’s bouncy pizzicato bass line introduces the rhythmic drive for the tune, over Mednard’s cadenced traps. Pelt and Cardenas play a weaving unison melody line that includes careful comping by Kimbrough, crystalizing over a few choruses before going into a repeating bridge. The sound is reminiscent of Allison’s “Man Sized Safe Group,” with Pelt taking on the role previously played by Ron Horton. After repeating the original melody and returning to a second bridge, the song abruptly morphs into a roiling, free-wheeling rumble of sounds driven by Kimbrough’s frantic piano, Allison’s churning bass and Mednard’s pounding drums. Pelt and Cardenas are slowly re-introduced into the fray, lightly maintaining the melody behind this musical riot. The front line returns once again to the tension building chorus where Pelt is given solo reign to blow over the boiling brew created by the other four-his soaring trumpet offering a blistering cadenza until fading out at the coda.
The eerie “Ghost Ship” is a cinematic composition that features Pelt’s airy, trumpet suspensions over Allison’s strong walking basslines- the armature on which all else is built. Kimbrough and Cardenas are both masters of subtle comping, adding delicate harmonies to this sparse piece. The passages of silence, where Allison’s plump bass notes are the lonely sound, are deliciously evocative. Mednard’s gossamery use of cymbals and snare are perfectly complimentary to the overall feel.
The title song “Layers of the City”-a reference to the diversity of New York City, Allison’s home in recent years- is a rhythmically, descending series of notes with a distinctively middle eastern feel to it. Once again Allison’s leading bass lines are the driving force. Cardenas, Kimbrough and Pelt all meld their voices so well as to create the illusion one multi-toned instrument- the multi-ethnic rhythmic driven cacophony of the urban landscape of New York City. Allison, Mednard and Cardenas create a rhythmic force that has some roots in the power rock trios of old, with Cardenas offering a more nuanced guitar solo that is less crammed with notes and more steeped in flavor.
“The Detective’s Wife” is a thoroughly enjoyable Allison composition that again has a cinematic quality and can easily become a vehicle for future explorations. The song is reminiscent of the music of Henry Mancini’s marvelous Pink Panther. Could this be a reference to Inspector Clouseau’s wife? Pianist Frank Kimbrough shines here with some of his most inspired playing, a tour de force. Trumpeter Pelt’s slithery muted horn is equally stirring. Bassist Allison allows himself a chance to extend out the theme in his own inimitable way with a playfully elastic solo that just dances to its own muse.
Allison’s fine 2008 release Little Things that Run the World was the album that introduced me to this remarkable musician and I have been satisfyingly following him ever since. “Blowback” is a re-work of the song originally performed on that album. Allison’s clever uses of throbbing bass lines that carry the tune through is again on display here. His heartbeat style gives a lifeforce to his music that makes it palpitate with possibilities. Here this lifeforce gives rise to some creative solos, first by Cardenas and then by Pelt.
The closing tune is a collective collaboration that borders on free improvisation titled “Get Me Offa This Thing.” With Cardenas and Kimbrough using string harmonics and Pelt using electronic augmentation of his trumpet, the song has an atmospheric feel. This is an exploration into sonic landscapes with Allison’s bass being the only anchoring voice.
As Allison once said, the idea behind the name of his company Sonic Camera Records is to capture a snapshot in time of the music an artist is creating in the present. As with any searching artist, Allison is not content to remain comfortably in a pocket. His present offering Layers of the City is just one more snapshot into his artistic development both as a band leader and more importantly as a composer.