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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.


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