Ben Allison and Medicine Wheel have a history of going against the grain, with their provocative form of New York jazz. Allison has said that “a composition should create a landscape in which a musician can freely explore and find an individual voice.”
With its fourth release, however, Medicine Wheel turns collective and moves its circle closer to the center. Voices move together as one. Pleasant harmony and smooth rhythms support simple melodies. Their “New York buzz” has turned conformist.
”Green Al” serves as one of the album’s high points due to its lyrical nature and the leader’s effusive bass walk. With this song, Allison doesn’t just walk in support of the others. He coaxes the best out of his ensemble with a melodic motif and supplies a lovely bass solo within. The others comply with a swinging affair that lopes gently amid choruses laced with sincere passion.
Elsewhere, Medicine Wheel gives the listener a hearty ensemble sound that balances trombone, saxophone, flute and piano with a loose, swinging rhythm. The music is pleasurable but lacks the creative fire found in much of Allison’s previous work. There are few surprises, and the sextet’s preferred format emphasizes grouped melody, followed by solos around the room. Each artist gives the listener a smooth ride, intended to assuage.
Even Allison’s “R&B Fantasy,” while supplying a few intellectual teasers, relies too heavily on tenor saxophone/trombone unison for its main attraction. The piece floats a melody that stalls repeatedly. Michael Blake’s solo gives the piece a lift. However, as the ensemble follows that with a tranquil unison passage, its glue once again dries out too soon. They come together peacefully, with chant-like harmony to quell their creative fires. Ben Allison and Medicine Wheel give the world a notion of utter harmony that’s unrealistic and trite.
Personnel: Ben Allison- bass; Michael Blake- tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone; Ted Nash- tenor saxophone, flute; Clark Gayton- trombone, bass trombone; Frank Kimbrough- piano; Michael Sarin- drums.