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An AAJ Interview with Ben Allison

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All artists are, in some way, building on foundations laid by previous generations. The main difference to me between a 'traditional' type of jazz musician and a 'forward-thinking' jazz musician is that the forward-thinking musician is more careful to cover his tracks.
This interview, conducted by Allen Huotari, was first published at All About Jazz in September 1999.

As history has taught us, it's not enough to be gifted with talent, one must live up to the burden that "potential" brings. Paradoxically and ironically, the blessing of having one's abilities recognized in public forum is the curse of scrutiny. Although journalists covering popular arts and entertainment are notorious for falling over each other in an effort to "discover" the next big thing, they are just as likely to hurriedly scramble away in search of the "next" next big thing. For that matter a fickle public, ripe for the "flavor of the month," is a volatile and unpredictable gauge for success. Expectations ride high and are seemingly always set higher.

Consequently, a rising star one year may be a falling one the next.

Bassist/composer Ben Allison was recently named by Downbeat magazine as one of 25 (under 40 years of age) rising jazz stars for the future. Of course, this is not to imply that Down Beat or its readers are flighty and fickle. Rather, this preamble is merely intended to illustrate that Mr. Allison is receiving serious attention from the jazz press. Fortunately, not only for him but for all jazz fans, he fully deserves it and unquestionably has the credentials to follow through.

Born in 1966 in New Haven, Connecticut, Ben Allison began studying music and guitar at the age of nine. He graduated from New York University in 1989 as a University Scholar and holds a bachelor's degree in jazz performance.

In 1992, Mr. Allison founded the Jazz Composers Collective, a musician-run, non-profit organization based in New York City that is devoted to generating an atmosphere under which composers and musicians can effectively realize the dual artistic objectives of creativity and risk. The JCC fosters the development, exploration, and presentation of new music without compromising the aesthetic of the composers, while simultaneously making the music accessible to a broad audience.

To achieve this goal, the Collective presents an annual concert series and publishes five editions of its newsletter each year. The newsletter is distributed free-of-charge to over 2,000 people worldwide.

To date, the Collective has presented 73 concerts featuring the works of 36 composers, the performances of over 125 musicians, and the premiere of nearly 300 compositions, and the performances of nearly 100 musicians and improvisers. It is no surprise that the organization's formation has been cited as one of the most important moments in jazz (Jazziz magazine, September 1997). Mr. Allison serves as the organization's Artistic Director and is one of four composers-in-residence.

Along with pianist and JCC member Frank Kimbrough, Allison co-directs the Herbie Nichols Project. The Herbie Nichols Project is a working, performing, and researching entity, dedicated to the music of this prolific and under-recognized jazz genius. The HNP was premiered by the Jazz Composers Collective in 1994 and the group's debut CD, Love Is Proximity (Soul Note), was released in 1997. The Herbie Nichols Project recently completed recording their second CD, entitled Dr. Cyclops' Dream (Soul Note), which will be released in the Fall of 1999.

A prolific and inventive composer in his own right, Mr. Allison has written over 100 works for ensembles of varying size and instrumentation. His debut CD as a leader, the critically acclaimed Seven Arrows (Koch Jazz), features music premiered at a Jazz Composers Collective concert in February 1995. His current group project, Medicine Wheel, was originally conceived of as a suite and was commissioned by the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust. It explores the timbral possibilities of extended techniques and instrument preparation. Medicine Wheel was premiered at a JCC concert in April 1996. Mr. Allison was subsequently awarded the prestigious Recording Program Grant from the Cary Trust to record the work. The resultant CD Medicine Wheel (Palmetto) was cited as one of the "Ten Best" recordings of 1998 by both Jazziz and Cadence magazines.

His latest CD Third Eye (Palmetto) was released in June 1999 and extrapolates from the concepts developed on Medicine Wheel, featuring original music premiered at a Collective concert in the Spring of 1998 that was commissioned by the American Composers Forum (Mr. Allison has also received grants from Meet The Composer, the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, and the Aaron Copland Fund).

Of Third Eye . AAJ modern jazz contributor Glenn Astarita writes: "First and foremost a jazz musician, Allison's deeply personal and seemingly systematic approach to composition and arrangements combined with a vivid imagination enable him to stand on his own as a prolific author of jazz music. On Third Eye, Ben Allison puts his expansive musical vocabulary to work! Soon, Allison along with his superfine ensemble are destined to become one of the benchmarks for modern day jazz composers and stylists. Allison's sonnet style tone poems for jazz music are often beguiling and enormously accessible to those who live either within or outside the mainstream. Third Eye is among the very best of 1999.

Mr. Allison has appeared at many international festivals with his own groups and as a member of others. His wide range of performance credits include associations with artists such as Lee Konitz, Gary Bartz, Dave Liebman, Joey Arias, Clifford Jordan, Jacky Terrasson, Jay Clayton, Billy Hart, Bill Mays, Ted Nash, Frank Kimbrough, Nora York, Jack Walrath, Arthur Blythe, Judi Silvano, Vic Juris, Bill Gerhardt, Eddie Gale, Michael Blake & Free Association, Clark Terry, Kenny Werner, Larry Willis, Sexmob, the Village Vanguard Orchestra, and the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, among many others but his most rewarding musical work has been with members of the Collective and the New York music community.

Mr. Allison has taught jazz performance, improvisation and/or composition at New York University, The Mannes College of Music (New York City), The New School for Social Research, and has conducted clinics at many schools and universities including The University of North Carolina (Greensboro, and Charlotte), the Fieldston School in Riverdale, New York, the Rhythm Teknik Institute in Copenhagen, and Appalachian State University (North Carolina). He is currently on the faculty of The Third Street Music School in New York City and is a guest lecturer at the New School and New York University. Mr. Allison also appears weekly with his trio at KUSH, a bar he co-owns with some long-time friends.

All About Jazz: Your bio indicates that you began studying music and guitar at the age of nine. What were the circumstances that led to this?

Ben Allison: In the mid-seventies, when I was about ten, guitar was the cool instrument to play. Most of the music I listened to at the time featured the guitar (Joni Mitchell, Beatles, Monkees). Also, one of my best friends had an older brother who played in a band with some neighborhood guys. Mostly Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

AAJ: Why, what, when, or who inspired you to pick up the bass?

BA: I went to a performing arts high school (Educational Center for the Arts). In my senior year the ensemble director asked me to play bass in a concert. "It's just the bottom four strings of the guitar an octave lower," he said. It felt like a lot more than that.

AAJ: When did you decide to pursue music as a vocation? What prompted the decision?

BA: I don't remember making that decision. I knew it would figure largely in my future. I still don't think of it as my only vocation. I make a living in a wide variety of ways. Last year I made half of my income from designing CD covers and web pages. The year before that it was from commissions to write new music. This year it's from doing a lot of recordings and some tours. Music is a wide field, involving many areas of creative endeavor. I like to keep things mixed up, express myself in different ways and hopefully make a decent living at it.

AAJ: Who would you consider to be your primary musical influences? Why?

BA: That's a tough question. It's hard to isolate primary influences since I'm sure I am not even aware of many of the things that have influenced me most deeply. I think many of my influences are not even musicians. There are certain composers, such as Duke Ellington, Alban Berg, Neil Young, and many, many more who I've mentioned before as having had a strong impact on my approach to writing and bandleading. But there are many more obscure examples of people who have been the catalyst for a particular composition or stylistic development.

An example comes to mind: I was walking through Washington Square Park in New York City some years ago when some kid came up to me and grabbed a small plastic ring I was carrying in my hand and yelled "Mine!" I immediately thought of a tenor player I knew and I began to work on a tune that had no soloist, in which everybody played the melody and harmony. We never performed the tune, but now that I think about it I believe it had a big influence on some of the things I am doing now with my group Medicine Wheel. Strange maybe, but I think that life is mostly made up of little things and daily decisions.

AAJ: As a follow up, do you consciously feel the need to avoid crossing the line from "being influenced" to "being imitative of"? Why?

BA: All artists are, in some way, building on foundations laid by previous generations. The main difference to me between a "traditional" type of jazz musician and a "forward-thinking" jazz musician is that the forward-thinking musician is more careful to cover his tracks. A traditionalist will not attempt to hide his influences and will actually try to draw attention to the lineage he is a part of. It's all a question of degree. To me, the artists that emerge as individualists, with recognizable voices and something "new" to say have always been of the first type. That is, those who have developed a style based on a subtle, even obscure fusion of the things they consider musically important. In one very basic sense there is never anything really "new" going on, just a new blend of things that have come before.

One side note: I don't feel that musicians have to be creating new stuff for it to be good. I like traditionalists who play a particular style well. It only becomes a problem for me when musicians playing in an old style exclusively (bebop, for instance), act as if they are breaking new ground, that they are, in fact, actual bebop era musicians (go to Small's in New York some night and see it in action. Believe me, it happens). Bebop will always be anachronistic since it is not 1945 and never will be again. It can never truly mean what it meant (a counter-cultural, bohemian, defiant brand of music).

AAJ: You've stated: "I love playing free, but I'm not a huge fan of playing out. People often confuse the two, but in my mind they're like love and sex: they go together well but basically they're unrelated. Playing "out" is just one of the billions of colors you can create." Would you please elaborate on these concepts? i.e., How do you differentiate between "playing free" and "playing out"? In addition to "out," what other words might be used to describe other "colors"?

BA: I said that? Cool. I like the idea, although it's hard to think of another way to say that. The only thing I can think of is to use an exercise I do with ensemble students as an example:

First we play a tune, whatever they happen to be working on (it's usually a jazz standard like a Monk tune or "Giant Steps" , or something). Then I ask them to play a series of one minute duos. I give them only one parameter each time (in addition to the one minute time frame which is a constant). The first parameter might be "slow," the next "fast," or "loud." Otherwise, there is no additional direction (harmony, timbre, melody, etc). Certain patterns almost always emerge; people tend to equate fast with loud and soft with slow. Also students tend to play more tonally when they are playing slow, atonally when fast.

During this process of playing "free" (a first for many of them) they often begin to feel a new found sense of freedom. Without having to think about scales, key signatures, chords (the things they have been taught actually make up music), they really begin to play more musically. The music never feels as stilted and contrived as when they were playing "Giant Steps" earlier.

Students are asked to concentrate on one particular aspect of their playing. Maybe the focus is only on timbre (the parameters get pretty abstract, like "sweetly"). We slowly add more and more parameters, always keeping that sense of freedom and creative energy. Playing "Giant Steps" just becomes the process of adding a few more parameters like harmony and melody. I believe you can play "free" no matter what you are playing. That concept is pretty far from playing "out," or atonally. "Out" is just one of the many parameters you could add to playing "free."

AAJ: As a follow up, in addition to techniques of jazz performance, composition and improvisation, do you feel that intangibles such as enhancements to creativity or imaginative prowess can be taught? If so, how? What approaches (in addition the exercise you've mentioned above) might be employed? (note: I ask this question because it seems as if some instructors approach performance, composition, and improvisation from an "analytical" perspective as opposed to a "integrative" perspective...if that makes any sense...)

BA: One of my favorite teachers was Joe Lovano. He used to say to me, "I'm not trying to teach you what to play. I want to teach you how to play." I think the biggest barrier to creativity is fear; fear of failure and consequently, an inability to take risks. Positive re-enforcement and a non-dictatorial approach to teaching can inspire students to feel comfortable experimenting, trying new things, and most important, help them define what directions they want to go in musically.

AAJ: How often do you practice and for how long? Do you ever force yourself to practice when you really don't feel like it? If so, how do you motivate yourself?

BA: I have never been an avid practicer in the sense of doing exercises, practicing scales, etc. I believe the adage that "practice makes permanent." In other words, you tend to play what you practice. Musicians who have practiced a lot of patterns, play a lot of patterns. Now, I just play. Even if it's alone, at home I try to make it a musical experience, not a technical exercise. Most of the things I am interested in working on with my playing involve interaction with other people (communication, developing my sound in the context of various instrumentations, refining my sense of groove, improvising compositionally).

AAJ: Do you have any techniques you personally employ to enhance or restore your own creative energy when you encounter difficulties in composing? If so, what are they?

BA: Sometimes I take what I call the "Star Search Approach." I try to listen to the worst music I can find. The idea is to surround myself with as many examples as possible of things I don't want to do. When I was in college that meant watching "Star Search." The music was always spine-numbingly horrible. I still do that kind of thing today. It's about an editing process. I think to myself "I don't like that, I don't want to sound like that, that's not my style." After you eliminate all these references, hopefully what you're left with is a more distilled sense of self.

AAJ: As a follow up, with regards to live performance, have you found that creativity or imagination can be spontaneously "jump started?" In other words, if you are in a situation where ideas simply don't seem to be flowing, have you learned that there are methods that can be consciously employed in order to stimulate or incite yourself? If so, what might these be?

BA: Tequila.

AAJ: Of Medicine Wheel, you state: "The result was a piece that required the participating musicians to employ extended techniques that pushed the limits of their respective instruments." This statement is highly intriguing. Most composers would have simply referred to pushing the limits of the musicians. Do you in fact differentiate between pushing the limits of the instrumentalists and pushing the limits of the instruments? If not, why not? If so, how would you respond to a skeptical listener simply concluding Ah ha! It's a gimmick. The music (composition) is actually simple to play but only seems difficult because of the unconventional techniques.

BA: First of all, my intention with my music is not to impress people with its difficulty. I would be happy to hear that someone thought my music easy. But easy and gimmicky are two different things. Some artists confuse complexity with level of interest. That's analogous to equating tempo with excitement (if a tune is not exciting enough, they think, just speed it up.) I try to write music that has a certain amount of immediate accessibility. But I also look for ways to make it interesting. I often just focus on the timbre of instruments. Musicians can get so many incredible sounds from their instruments, many more sounds than are usually utilized by composers. For instance, I like to take sounds that in jazz are often relegated to the role of occasional sound effect and use them as jumping off points for entire pieces.

AAJ: As a follow up, do you compose specifically for these musicians? Or do your compositions simply require any group of technically proficient musicians? (for example, John Zorn has stated that for some of his pieces, he hasn't written for specific performers but for specific TYPES of performers. On the other hand, Dave Douglas has stated that he can't imagine his pieces even existing apart from the specific individual performers)

BA: I like to write for specific players. Duke Ellington and Ornette Coleman are other examples from history who, I believe, thought about that a lot.

Part of my approach to composing and band leading is to try to provide a musical landscape for the musicians to explore. I am particularly interested in creating scenarios for them to do what they do best. That was, in fact, part of my initial inspiration for writing my own tunes. I looked at the tunes that I liked and tried to figure out what it was about them that made them fun to play. I realized that I was good at some things, bad at others. I was more comfortable in certain situations. I then tried to write tunes that contained and elaborated upon those situations. It seems obvious, but I think that people play better on tunes that they are comfortable with. I know I do. Of course, there are players who can play on anything. But it may be the case that their ability to fit into any situation is the result of a certain lack of individuality.

AAJ: Again of Medicine Wheel you state: "forms were extended to blur the lines between what was written music and what was improvised." In general, how do you keep composition and improvisation balanced? What techniques do you use to achieve the aforementioned blurring?

BA: Sometimes I might give the improviser a series of notes and a certain quality or vibe that I would like them to use throughout their solo. This becomes part of the compositional process. Sometimes this is very specific. For instance I might ask Frank (our pianist) to only solo with his right hand. Or I might ask someone to build their solo in dynamic intensity so that it leads into another section in a certain way. Sometimes I work on textures comprised of a lot of different parts. Some parts may include specific notes but no rhythm, while others are a repeating pattern. I may then refer to that texture at various times throughout the piece. It's composed but not entirely written. I put orchestration under the heading of composition.

AAJ: As a follow up, are you capable of distinguishing between your objectives as a composer and your needs as an improviser? Why or why not?

BA: I am sure I am capable of it. But I don't think I want to. I think of composing as kind of like improvising in advance, with an edit button. And I try to approach improvising with the sensibilities of a composer. They are really two parts of a whole.

AAJ: Please elaborate on this answer. What advantages of improvisation do you feel composers usually don't understand or appreciate? What advantages of composition do you feel improvisers usually don't understand or appreciate?

BA: Competition is a traditional part of jazz improvisation. It used to be called "cutting," where musicians would try to out-do each other in successive rounds of solos -a tenor battle, for instance. Unfortunately, I think many musicians of today take that creative competitiveness too much to heart at the expense of the music. I came up in the eighties, right in the middle of the neo-conservative era. Bebop was being transformed from the counter-cultural art form it had been to a conservatory art form. I was told then that it was a language I must master to be considered a jazz musician. Along with that language came, what I perceived to be, an almost macho-like attitude towards improvisation. I and many of my contemporaries were more interested in group interaction and the tune as a whole as the final test of musical worth. I think we look at improvisation as a way to spontaneously compose together. There are few musical sounds I dislike more than a rhythm section merely "supporting" a soloist. Sometimes improvisers have the "Mine!" philosophy I described in my answer to question 4 above and aren't thinking in terms of what would strengthen the overall statement of the composition.

AAJ: What do you feel are the similarities and differences between Medicine Wheel and Third Eye ?

BA: I guess one is just the extension of the other. For Third Eye I used almost the same musicians and instrumentation as Medicine Wheel . I wanted to build on some of the sounds and concepts of the previous album. It's a hard question. In a way, I think someone else could probably answer it better.

AAJ: As a follow up, in retrospect did you learn anything during the composition, performance, and recording of Medicine Wheel that you have carried forward into Third Eye ?

BA: Yes. I think everything I do musically is part of a learning process. Many of the things are too subtle to describe.

Some things I can think of have to do with building confidence in my ability to make decisions and take chances. For instance, some of the sounds I have been hearing lately are impossible to produce naturally in performance or rehearsal. So I don't know exactly how they will sound until we actually record them. When something works as I hoped it would it makes me want to try for more next time.

Others have to do with specific problems of recording: is it possible to record a tune in sections, piece it together afterwards and still make a complete sounding statement? (I now think it is.)

It sounds cliche, but it's all about the process.

AAJ: What creative outlet does performing at KUSH provide for you?

BA: KUSH is the perfect place to work out ideas, experiment. Since we would get bored playing the same tunes every week, it makes us want to bring in new things and expand our repertoire. Also, we have developed a great fan base which inspires us to keep on our toes.

AAJ: How has your music been received outside of North America?

BA: Europe, Japan, and Canada are all very enthusiastic about creative music. Recently, we have had great experiences playing there. Also, we put our web site address on all of our CDs (by "our" I mean all the composers of the Jazz Composers Collective, our non-profit composers organization—the spawning ground for many ongoing projects including Medicine Wheel). So, we get great direct feedback from other countries. It's fascinating to get messages from places like South Korea, Australia, Argentina, Israel. I love the Internet. It's a valuable tool and a way for musicians to feel more connected with their audience (witness this interview).

AAJ: Do you have any plans for a solo bass recording?

BA: None in the immediate future, although I am thinking about doing a small solo piece on my next album.

AAJ: What else can be expected from Ben Allison in 1999-2000?

BA: I play on a few new CDs by some of my compatriots in the Collective which are coming out this Fall on various labels: ed Nash Double Quartet Rhyme and Reason (Arabesque, October release), the aforementioned CD by the Herbie Nichols Project Dr. Cyclops' Dream (Soul Note, October release), Ron Horton Quintet Genius Envy (Omnitone, October release), and Michael Blake and Free Association Drift (Intuition, January release), as well as a few others where I was just a hired gun. I am working on touring more extensively with my trio. Medicine Wheel and the Herbie project will also be out there but the contracts are not signed yet so I can't give you any particulars. Also, I will be working on writing for different configurations of trios which will form the basis for my next album (to be recorded in February 2000). I am looking forward to doing some collaborative composing with the other composers-in-residence of the Collective. We are planning to perform the resulting suite on March 23, 2000 as part of our annual concert series and hopefully record it shortly thereafter.

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