Ben Allison: Between Groove and Melody

Angelo Leonardi By

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Bassist, bandleader, educator and composer, Ben Allison is one of the leading players of the world stage. During the past twenty years he has released twelve records and led various bands, performed on more than thirty albums, co-founded The Jazz Composers Collective, and served as its Artistic Director until its dissolution in 2005. In this conversation, Allison speaks about his album (Layers of The City, Sonic Camera Records 2017), his personal style, the birth of his own label, his long relationship with Palmetto Records, and many other topics.

All About Jazz: Let's talk about your record, Layers of the City. Great music, beautiful compositions but I would like underline two points: a mood evocative of Miles Davis and the introduction of the electric bass. What can you tell us?

Ben Allison: Thank you. I am proud of this album. All the musicians (Jeremy Pelt, Frank Kimbrough, Steve Cardenas and Allan Mednard) play so beautifully on it. They brought the compositions to life. This group of musicians is really a band. There's great chemistry between us, which is probably the most important ingredient to making a good record. There are many moments of interplay, where you can hear an idea emerge from someone, and then spread throughout the group. It's interesting that you should mention Miles. An important aspect of his genius was his ability to bring the right musicians together to create a special chemistry. I didn't write this album specifically with him in mind. But, he's had a profound impact on me, and many musicians of my generation. So, I suppose his music is always in the back of my mind.

AAJ: You've been with Palmetto Records for several years. Not many artists stay with one label this long. What are the elements that keep you and producer Matt Balitsaris together?

BA: I was fortunate to be one of the first jazz artists signed to Palmetto Records, back in the 1990s. During the years that Matt Balitsaris -who is the founder of the label-was running it, Palmetto developed into the Blue Note of its day. Like Blue Note, Palmetto was documenting a lot of great music that was being missed by the major labels. In retrospect, Palmetto documented some of the best music from that era, maybe because they were focused entirely on the quality of the music and weren't as concerned with signing artists who were already celebrities. Instead, they mostly fostered new artists who were on their way up. They also gave a platform to some legendary artists to make records of high integrity. Some of my heroes, like Andrew Hill and Dr. Lonnie Smith released some of their best albums on Palmetto. Matt Balitsaris was the reason why.

AAJ: Four year ago you've launched your own record label, Sonic Camera. What led to this decision?

BA: In 2011, Matt Balitsaris stepped away from Palmetto to focus his energy in other areas. At that moment, I was making the last record required by my contract with them. The album was Action Refraction. When we were done, I decided not to resign with them. Without Matt, the label was less appealing to me. But, I also thought that I could do a good job creating my own label. During the many years that I was making albums for other labels, I was listening and learning—soaking up whatever I could, learning about the craft, the process and the business. There's a lot to know and understand, if you want to do it right. You need to have a deep understanding of copyright, production, marketing, promotions, distribution and a range of other skill sets. I learned a lot from working directly with Palmetto, and then applied that knowledge when I created Sonic Camera Records. In a way, I saw starting a label as another way to express myself. There's a lot of creativity involved with the business of running a label—including figuring out how to do a lot with limited resources.

AAJ: Balitsaris retired from the musical business to work as chairman of an institution which promotes microfinance in Haiti. He made an impressive choice, but it's a loss for jazz music. Don't you agree?

BA: Yes, I agree. This is why, when I felt the time was right for me to make another record, I reached out to Matt to ask if he would engineer it. I missed working with him, and was thrilled when he said "yes." The sounds he got on this record are amazing. They're so full of life, and sonically rich and complex. There was so much to work with when it came time to mix it. Mixing albums myself allows me to give the album a particular character—my sonic style. The "Ben Allison Sound." (Smile. Ed.)

AAJ: Your writing is complex and modern but there is a unusual strong sense of melody on your compositions. Does that reflect your priorities as an artist?

BA: Groove is the heartbeat... the footsteps... the breathing. But, Melody is the voice...the singing...the story. I think a lot of modern jazz (especially some of the stuff I'm hearing by younger artists) is missing the melody. Lyricism seems to be a bit of a lost art. Or, maybe it's just out of fashion. I hear a lot of complexity in jazz today. Musicians are experimenting with structures and patterns. It's all very interesting. But sometimes it leaves me cold. There's a profound beauty in a simple melody. Simple melodies are difficult to write. They require poetry, even when there are no words. And they require a kind of confidence—the ability to say what you mean in a few words. I think a lot of musicians believe that making music more complex makes it deeper and more interesting. I don't agree.

AAJ: Is your approach to the double bass an outgrowth of your compositional approach?

BA: I've spoken about this before. I think of my bass playing and my composing as completely intertwined. Or, put another way, they are two sides of the same coin. One informs the other and neither can exist without the other. The bass is the harmonic foundation and the rhythmic foundation of a tune. I often compose by playing the bass and singing along with what I'm playing. This gives me the melody as well as the root of the harmony, which creates basic counterpoint. The bass line also provides the subdivision of the beat, which defines the groove. Together, these form the foundation of whatever structure I'm building.

AAJ: For thirteen years, you directed The Jazz Composers Collective. What were the Collective's main achievements?

BA: The Jazz Composers Collective was an important organization that supported and fostered new and creative music in the jazz idiom. It also helped to build audiences for this music. It started very simply as a kind of jam session. The idea was that, in order to gain entrance to the session, a musician had to bring in a new tune that they were working on. I wanted the session to be a kind of workshop for new ideas. This informal session grew into the Jazz Composers Collective. We incorporated as a non-profit in 1992 and started presenting concerts. We published newsletters, with articles written by the composers about their music. We did whatever we could to welcome new audience members and make the experience of hearing new music fun and rewarding. Soon, we began commissioning new works, recording albums and organizing tours. We formed a partnership with The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in NYC, as well as with the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music -where I am currently a member of the Faculty. By the time we dissolved the Collective in 2005, we had premiered over three-hundred new compositions, presented the music of over fifty composers, and featured over two-hundred and fifty musicians. It was an amazing creative outpouring, and it provided many of us with the support we needed to find our voices as artists. I'm immensely proud of what we accomplished.

AAJ: One of your first recording sessions was Rhapsody with Lee Konitz. Can you recall any memories about that experience ?

BA: Lee was (and is) an amazing musician. I recorded several albums with him and played on a few tours in the early 1990s. We've played together on and off over the years since. I've always admired the way he has been able to reinvent himself over the years. Back in his youth he had a tremendous technique on the alto. He was flying....like Bird. As he's gotten older (he's ninety now!), he has found new ways to be creative. These days, he can play one note and say a lot. And when he plays that one note, you know it's him. His sound and phrasing are unique. I hope I can be that creative when I'm his age.

AAJ: Action-Refraction, released in 2011, contains reworkings of non-original compositions (by Neil Young, Thelonious Monk, Donny Hathaway, and PJ Harvey, among others). It was a huge success. Will you do another album of "covers"?

BA: With Action-Refraction, I wanted to make a record of all "covers." The challenge I set for myself was to see if I could choose a very diverse set of tunes and weave them together into a cohesive album. Donny Hathaway, Samuel Barber, and PJ Harvey are so different as composers and artists. But, I think some of those differences are on the surface, and I wanted to explore how they might all be connected. It was an experiment, and I'm very happy with the way it turned out. Commercially, it was one of my most successful albums. But, now that I've done it, I don't imagine I'll do it again. For one thing, I have many more original tunes that I want to write. In fact, since Layers of the City was released this past summer, I've written almost half an album's worth of new compositions. I'm starting to plan for a follow-up album now. In the meantime, Think Free and I are having a ball playing the new stuff on the road. It's important for me to keep looking forward.

AAJ: Speaking about your partners, you have a longtime partnership with Steve Cardenas. What are the reasons for the longevity of this collaboration?

BA: Steve Cardenas is one of my closest friends. We've been collaborating together for nearly thirteen years, and in all that time we've never had an argument. I love him like a brother. He's a tremendous person. But, it was the music that originally brought us together. I have been playing with Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra for over twenty years. Some years ago, we had a regular, Monday-night gig at the Jazz Standard Club in NYC. One night, Steve Cardenas subbed for the regular guitarist. I remember we were playing an old Duke Ellington chart from the 1930s. I think it was "Harlem Speaks." In the midst of this tune I heard an unexpected musical reference. Steve subtly quoted a George Harrison solo. It was musical and worked beautifully within the context of the tune. There was a kind of genius to his idea. I thought, "here is a musician, like me, who likes to connect styles together—to improvise with genre." We spoke on the break and I asked him if he'd like to create a new project with me. At the time, I was writing some new music that featured guitar (my first instrument) and thought he'd be the perfect musician to help me bring it to life. We've been collaborating ever since.

AAJ: You are a longtime musical educator. What are the ingredients that make a good jazz musician?

BA: As an educator, my job is to help musicians find their voice, both as instrumentalists and as professionals. I never tell them, "sound like this, or sound like that..." I want to help them sound like themselves. Good jazz musicians have something personal to say. They take risks. They are excellent communicators on their instruments. Good musicians are fearless.

AAJ: Do you have any unrealized dream project?

BA: Yes, I have many. But, I prefer to talk about what's happening now.... Not what I dream about... (Smile. Ed.)

AAJ: What are your tour plans for the next months?

BA: United States, Europe and some dates in Asia. We just returned from Cuba and I would love to go back there again. Also, we came very close to performing in Iran a few years ago. I would LOVE to be able to play our music for the Iranian people. I have a feeling that they would dig it. Oh, I guess I just mentioned something I dream about...

Photo credit: Anna Yatskevitch

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