Ben Allison: Bringing Listeners to the Music
“ I still think of myself as a jazz musician and I don't believe anyone can claim ownership of the word. Jazz music is what we, the musicians, make it. ”
Ben Allison is a jazz musician you should keep an eye on. Influenced by Charlie Haden, but with a voice all his own, this year seems to be quite a ride for his career. DownBeat magazine selected him as one of the "25 rising jazz stars for the future," and he also won the prestigious "Bird Award" at the 2005 North Sea Jazz Festival, an honor previously awarded to important artists including Misha Mengelberg, Art Blakey and Sonny Rollins. All About Jazz caught up with Allison to speak with him about his career and musical choices.
All About Jazz: How and when did you start playing bass? Was it your first instrument?
Ben Allison: My first instruments were guitar and drums. At one point I felt that I should make a choice and concentrate on one or the other. Around the same time I tried the bass and immediately fell in love with it. The bass felt like a perfect combination of the guitar and the drums.
AAJ: Which bass players have influenced you most?
BA: I tend to be influenced by bassists who are also composers and band leaders. I think bass players lead bands in a particular and unique way. And writing from the perspective of the bass definitely gives the music a different character. Bass players have a special relationship with drummers. Together they can really direct the course of the music.
AAJ: Who is for you the bassist?
BA: I can't think of one person who represents everything for me. I've learned something from everyone I've ever heard (even if it's something that I don't want to do). I've also been influenced by many non-musicians: graphic artists, philosophers, lawyers, friends, chefs, children, and the occasional teacher.
AAJ: Do you consider yourself a jazz musician?
BA: Yes, I do. Jazz is a big word these days. The music has expanded and developed exponentially over the years. Jazz is, by its very nature, a musical style born of the fusion of different traditions. Jazz musicians have incorporated so many sounds and styles into contemporary jazz that some people feel that jazz itself has become too diluted and the word has lost its meaning. I don't think this is true. I still think of myself as a jazz musician and I don't believe anyone can claim ownership of the word. Jazz music is what we, the musicians, make it. And it's a vital part of the tradition of jazz that the music move forward and develop. Jazz musicians love to experiment and try new things. That's what keeps the music alive and changing.
AAJ: What was it like playing with guys that come from the jazz tradition and belong to another generation, like Clark Terry and Lee Konitz?
BA: Both Clark and Lee play music that transcends time. They have styles that are products of the eras they grew up in. But their musicality and artistry works as well today as it did when they were young.
AAJ: What about David Liebman? He is known to be a tough guy.
BA: Dave is also a great supporter of musicians who take risks and have worked to develop their own sound and style. He's opinionated. But most original thinkers are.
AAJ: DownBeat has recently referred to you as one of the "25 rising jazz stars for the future." Additionally you have just received the prestigious "Bird Award" at this year's North Sea Jazz Festival, ranking with musicians like Misha Mengelberg, Art Blakey and Sonny Rollins. Do you feel any extra weight on your shoulders?
BA: The only real pressure I feel is the pressure I put on myself. I greatly appreciate publications such as DownBeat and organizations such as the North Sea Jazz Festival praising my work. It's nice to feel that you're being recognized for what you do. But I'm my own worst critic.
AAJ: You are quoted as being an "advocate for artist empowerment." What, for you, is the meaning of that?
BA: I founded the Jazz Composers Collectivea non-profit organization dedicated to presenting new music and building audiences for jazzwith the intention of drawing attention to the music of creative New York composers as well as bringing more listeners to the music. I wanted a way to bridge what I perceived to be a gap between the musicians and the casual music listener. I don't think that jazz is something that should be hard to understand or something that the listener has to work hard to like. Jazz is a subtle music and there is a lot to enjoy. And at times and with certain musicians it can be quite complex but I think that the casual listener's aversion to checking it out usually has more to do with how and where it's presented.
AAJ: You were very young when you founded the Jazz Composers Collective and now there is something like euphoria around you, even amongst young people. How do you explain this?