Bassist Ben Allison was a virtual unknown when this album was originally released by Palmetto in 1998. After Seven Arrows (Koch, 1996), this was Allison's first major release. Combining conservatory training, ethnic/world music fusions, post-bop energy and free-jazz vigor, Allison and company were on the cusp of a new movement. Listening to this recording in retrospect reveals a blueprint for the new breed of jazz improviser. Medicine Wheel is a watershed moment in end of the century East Coast jazz.
The personnel list reveals a virtual who's who of emerging talent. Saxophonists Ted Nash and Michael Blake have become leaders in their own right, each with impressive discographies. Here they dovetail around one another, trading licks that drift from melodious, soulful beauty to raw, acerbic fervency. By adding repeated multiphonic glisses and altissimo variations to conventional melodic phrases, they generate a new lyricism on tunes like "Mousetrap" and "Buzz." Their flirtation with free jazz always suits the music at hand, bolstering its catchy melodies and stalwart rhythms.
Trumpeter Ron Horton has gone on to greater acclaim as well; his explorations into the untapped potential of the Third Stream movement have provided a bounty of magnificent music. His kaleidoscopic playing is on full display here, from smeary, gutbucket rasberries on "Blabbermouth" to fragile, euphonious variations on "Apostles of the Ugly." Pianist Frank Kimbrough has become one of today's finest melodicists, and his solo on "Apostles of the Ugly" exemplifies his delicate touch.
Jeff Ballard is a fiendish drummer who continues to accompany Allison on his forays. His variations on "Buzz" veer from clattering ethnic polyrhythms and straight-ahead bebop to scintillating free jazz cymbal thrashing. Only cellist Tomas Ulrich seems to have missed out on greater exposure. His multi-hued Hendrixian solo on "Quirky Dungeon" proves him every bit as creative a soloist as Erik Friedlander or Fred Lonberg-Holm.
Allison's universe is accessible, but subtly adventurous. Trafficking in attractive melodies, pleasing harmonies, danceable rhythms and impressive group interaction, Allison's sonic architecture builds from some seemingly unconventional materials. Whether adding seed pods to his upright bass on "Buzz" or preparing Kimbrough's piano with coins and fishing line on "Spy," all this investigation of extended techniques and augmentation is in the service of solid melodic hooks and robust rhythms, never either frivolous or decorative.
Although this new reissue lacks remastering or bonus tracks, it still warrants attention. A five-star album, Medicine Wheel is a landmark of late-1990s postmodern jazz. From here on, pedestrian, ironic cut and paste structures gave way to the seamless integration of divergent genres through advanced composition. For Allison, this is a seminal record, both as a composer and an improviser, and one from which he continues to draw inspiration.
Personnel: Ben Allison: bass; Michael Blake: saxophones; Ted Nash: saxophones, flute; Ron Horton: trumpet, flugelhorn; Tomas Ulrich: cello; Frank Kimbrough: piano, prepared piano; Jeff Ballard: drums.