Ben Allison & Medicine Wheel: Buzz (2004)
Despite its moderate tempo, "Respiration," the opening track on Buzz, sets an insistent tone that drives the album’s first three tracks. Bassist Ben Allison penned all three charts, which feature tight, energetic ensemble playing by the six-piece band as well as plenty of open space for improvisation, including a textured piano solo by Frank Kimbrough on "Respiration" and a blistering tenor solo by either Michael Blake or Ted Nash (the promo copy of the disc does not specify) on "Buzz." The third track, "Green Al," is an upbeat bluesy tenor feature that has the sort of undeniable appeal of which standards are made. Michael Sarin provides much of the energy on these numbers with his varied, driving drumming, but a clear kinetic sound emanates from each member of the band.
The next track, "Mauritania," was composed by Blake and features great flute work by Nash, as well as a strong solo by trombonist Clark Gayton (whose work adds a depth to the low end at various points throughout recording). The piece's slow groove seems to demarcate a change in the album’s energy level, however.
Though Andrew Hill's "Erato" brings Allison's bass playing to the fore and the individual parts are still well-performed, the driving force that energized the album's early numbers seems to seep away a bit. Allison's "R&B Fantasy" struggles against the trend with mixed results over its better than seven-minute length. Things grind to a near halt, however, on the album’s last number, a ponderous cover of the Beatles' "Across the Universe" (an admittedly ponderous song to begin with). It's tempting to say the final track is a Buzz killer, but the early tracks are definitely worth a spin. Buzz is uneven, but at its best, it's very, very good.
Track Listing: 1. Respiration 2. Buzz 3. Green Al 4. Mauritania 5. Erato 6. R&B Fantasy 7. Across the Universe
Personnel: Ben Allison, Bass; Michael Blake, Tenor & Soprano Saxophones; Ted Nash, Tenor Saxophone, Flute; Clark Gayton, Trombone, Bass Trombone; Frank Kimbrough, Piano, Wurlitzer, Prepared Piano; Michael Sarin, Drums.